Noreen's Nourishment gives hope and comfort to many in Cook Children's Hospital

Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

Cherie Haefner and her husband, Leland, serve oncology nurse Kathleen Gordon a warm meal courtesy of Noreen’s Nourishment.
Cherie Haefner and her husband, Leland, serve oncology nurse Kathleen Gordon a warm meal courtesy of Noreen’s Nourishment. (Photo by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen/NTC

Noreen Fitzgerald was too young to learn Bible stories or recite prayers, but in the eyes of some St. Vincent de Paul parishioners, the baby girl who died at the age of 10 months, is a saint.

“She lived less than a year, yet look at the ministry she inspired,” marvels Leland Haefner as families began to file into a hospitality room at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “It gives hope and comfort to so many people.”

Haefner and his wife, Cherie, are longtime volunteers for Noreen’s Nourishment — a program that provides a weekly meal for the parents and siblings of young cancer patients hospitalized at the pediatric facility. Every Sunday for the past 11 years, members of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Arlington have prepared, delivered, and served hot casserole dishes, meat entrees, vegetable trays, fruit bowls, and desserts to families who spend weeks on the oncology floor while their youngsters undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Two hundred parishioners participate in the ministry by making financial contributions, cooking, purchasing drinks and other supplies, or through prayer.

“To me, coming here is a blessing,” says Haefner, who delivers and sets up the buffet the first Sunday of each month. “It keeps me aware that God is present in all of us. That’s why, in my mind, Noreen’s a saint. The Catholic Church will never canonize her, yet she taught our community what it means to reach out to those in need.”

Noreen’s mother, Lori Fitzgerald, started the ministry after her baby died at Cook Children’s on August, 14, 1999 — four months after she was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive liver tumor. Comforting her infant daughter through four major surgeries and five rounds of chemotherapy was grueling, but there was another side to the heartbreak Lori never forgot. Caring for a sick baby during an extended hospital stay meant neglecting an older child.

“You stop working, so there’s no income, and you have an ill youngster who is very needy, so you don’t shop, and there’s no time to prepare meals for the family,” explains Fitzgerald, describing the pyramid of stress. “Neighbors brought over food when Noreen first got sick but, unfortunately, cancer lasts longer than two weeks.”
A guilt-filled moment of realization inspired the ministry. After spending the night at home because she wasn’t feeling well, Lori, who was pregnant, raced back to the hospital early the next morning with eight-year-old daughter, Joy.

“Joy went to the playroom but kept coming back to tell me she was hungry,” Lori remembers. “I was busy taking care of Noreen, so I just shooed her back to the playroom.”

After repeated visits to her sister’s room asking for breakfast, the tired mom lashed out, “Joy, what do you want me to do? Have you seen me go to the grocery store lately?”

The sadness blanketing her daughter’s face as she closed the hospital room door is indelibly set in Lori’s memory.
“She was just a little girl who wanted breakfast, and I had no way to feed her,” she says, quietly recalling her desperation. “Not being able to feed your healthy child, yourself, or the rest of the family, is a struggle that shouldn’t be there.”

After Noreen died, the grieving mother resolved to make life easier for the families of other young cancer patients. An early attempt to begin a hospital meal ministry failed, but Fitzgerald’s determination never waned. Two years later, with the encouragement of fellow parishioner Debbie Dixon and the approval of St. Vincent pastor Father Tom Craig, Noreen’s Nourishment hosted a pizza night for the oncology nurses and families at Cook Children’s.

Jesse Minton delivered those boxes of pizza Feb. 10, 2002 and continues to help manage the ministry along with wife, Amy. Today, steaming pans of lasagna, brisket, and macaroni and cheese feed 35 people a week, including the nursing staff.

“Several cooks make something that will feed 10-12 people, and it’s brought to the church office on Sunday before 2 p.m.,” explains Minton, a Catholic convert who says the ministry affirms his faith. “Drivers take the food to the hospital and set up the buffet. Everything is cleaned up by 4:30 p.m.”

 
 

A rotating, uncomplicated schedule encourages participation.

“This is a ministry that lets busy parishioners, who don’t have a lot of time, do some good work for others,” he adds. “People help out when they can.”

Nurses tell parents about the weekly meal provided by St. Vincent de Paul during the admission process. The healthful respite is appreciated and acknowledged in thank you notes and kind words.

“This is the first meal we’ve eaten together since Christmas,” confides the parent of a 19-year-old cancer patient hospitalized since December. “Our daughter is in isolation, so it’s a blessing to come here and spend some time together.”

After enjoying a quick bite, the vigilant mom and dad returned to the hospital room and sent their two hungry, teenage boys to the lounge for an early dinner. A hot, home cooked meal sustains the entire family, the weary mom says.

“And you feel the love that went into it,” she adds. “You know somebody prepared the meal with a prayer for you and that’s comforting, too.”

Lori Fitzgerald started Noreen’s Nourishment to help others, but says the thriving ministry is also a balm for her own grieving heart. Losing a child can destroy a parent. Knowing her daughter’s illness and death inspired a program that makes caregiving easier for other families battling cancer is a “huge” consolation.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a canonized saint in the Catholic Church,” Lori admits. “Leave it to God to give you greater than your heart’s desire. He made me the mother of a saint.”

Noreen Fitzgerald was too young to learn Bible stories or recite prayers, but in the eyes of some St. Vincent de Paul parishioners, the baby girl who died at the age of 10 months, is a saint.

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