My job: food for life

Catherine Fogarty is a clinical dietician at Christchurch hospital and a PSA delegate

DieticianTell us about your job

I deal with people whose medical condition has an impact their nutrition. I’m the gastro dietician so I’ll see patients with intestinal and stomach conditions. Often we’re dealing with people who have lost a lot of weight and are malnourished.


Yet all we ever hear is that people are overweight

A lot of people are overweight but between 30 and 40 per cent of patients are malnourished when they come into hospital. We participated in a recent survey which found that 32 per cent of patients surveyed that day in 50 Australian and New Zealand hospitals were malnourished. When you’re sick often your appetite is poor and some medical conditions cause you to lose weight.


So how do you help them get enough food?

We start by looking at blood tests to see if there are vitamin or mineral deficiencies. We look at muscle mass, their medical condition and the history of what they have been eating. Then we recommend the best way of giving them the nutrition needed to gain weight or stop losing weight. Some people can’t eat enough so have to be fed artificially, perhaps through a tube or intravenously. Some need to go home on tube feeding and we spend a lot of time teaching them how to manage it. There’s a lot to it.


What do you like about your job?

I like the fact you’re making a difference. You see people come in, they have their treatment and you can help them recover and gain weight and get on with a good quality of life. We help people with things like coeliac disease them come to grips with their condition and still be able to enjoy food.  The other aspect is that I work with really great people. There’s a lot of teamwork and camaraderie which I enjoy.


How did you get into this work?

My mother was a huge fan of Alison Holst and through that became aware of home science school. I’d always had an interest in nutrition and clothing so went to home science school and did a clothing degree. As part of it, we had to study nutrition and I realised it can make a huge difference to people’s health. That was the beginning and I went on to train in dietetics. I’ve loved it; it’s a very good job.


How have the earthquakes affected you?

Three of the medical wards have moved to another site and it takes an hour each day to get there and back so that’s quite a strain on resources. I was in the hospital for the February one. That was scary – we all rushed out of the hospital onto the grass. I was here for the June quake as well and the one on December 23. So I’ve been in the hospital for three big ones. It’s quite traumatic when it happens. For two of them, I left town straight away. You know you’re in for a night of horrific after-shocks so you’re not going to get any sleep. If you can get away, you do.


How are people coping?

People have an ability to get on with life but the December one was quite soul-destroying. We hadn’t had a big shock for six months and thought things were calming down and getting back to normal. When a big one hits, you go back into those traumatised feelings. We’re all wondering when it’s going to end. 

On the positive side, people have pulled together really well. We’ve got good teams and people are very kind and caring. Even though it can be stressful and traumatic it’s brought out the best in everyone.


What’s your advice about healthy eating?

I think portion sizes are important so my advice is to keep them reasonable. There’s nothing you can’t eat and occasional treats are fine; what matters is what you eat most of the time. It’s that saying – party food for party time. We do have a serious obesity epidemic that’s going to affect the health service as well as people’s quality of life. Preventing obesity is so important so I was very annoyed when the government stopped the healthcare food policy in schools.


This article is from the March 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.