Like many people who devote themselves to a caring profession, my choice to practice as a dietitian and support those experiencing illness and eating challenges, has been driven by personal experience of poor health and looking after a loved one.
I was very unwell as a teenager and spent a lot of years in hospital. I saw the isolation of being in that setting and the unappetising food that was served on the ward. When I was able to be at home, my family would cajole me to eat and I was on the receiving end of how love and affection can be translated through food. I also saw how disconnected the hospital setting could be from nourishment and caring. Realising there must be a better way to care for people was my emotional drive to become a dietitian.
There was a defining moment when I understood that my core passion is to help people that are really struggling – and that I had to operate in a different way to be able to achieve that. While working for the NHS, I looked after an amazing patient who had Aids. His appetite was suppressed but he used to love me to sit on his bed and talk about the meals I’d eaten. I asked him one day, ‘What would you like to eat at this precise moment?’ He said, ‘A fresh strawberry’, so the next day I brought one into his hospital room. I was told off for giving it to him because it hadn’t come through the hospital kitchen and didn’t have a food label on. And I just thought, this isn’t where I want to be. I need to do this differently and craft my career in a way that nurtures people.
I set up the first private dietetic clinic in the UK, with the aim of supporting those struggling with the nourishment and eating challenges caused by illness (I had to take out an overdraft to do it; my parents didn’t know I slept on the floor of my practice for a few months as rents were so high). It’s why I’ve launched my online community Nourish by Jane Clarke, to provide recipes and inspiration for anyone facing barriers to nourishment, whether that’s swallowing difficulties caused by dementia, or loss of appetite and taste changes during chemotherapy.
I’ve also developed Nourish Drinks, made with all-natural and organic ingredients, to provide calories, protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals for those who can’t face a full meal or who need additional nutritional support. As well as being good for you, they actually taste delicious so they don’t sit undrunk by someone’s bedside. It’s hugely gratifying to have feedback from care homes and care-givers saying how much difference Nourish Drinks are making to the wellbeing of their residents and how they feel as carers; which is particularly poignant after such a brutal year.
My dad has a rare form of dementia, so I know firsthand the difference that good nourishment can make to lives. It’s why I’m so passionate about putting nourishment at the heart of care. Too many people are struggling to swallow when dementia cruelly meddles with their ability to eat. Too many people young and old die of malnutrition, not from cancer itself. Too many caring friends and relatives don’t know how to look after someone with dignity, who is choking and can’t manage the meals they once enjoyed.
My mission is to champion our vulnerable and those isolated in illness because not enough is being done to connect them to food they can nourish themselves with. Ultimately, I want to create a society where people can be respected, heard and nurtured.