By G.K.Sharman
It's the part of my recent hospital experience that haunts me most. I still have the nightmare: I'm in my room. The door opens. A woman comes in holding...a tray with a covered plate on it. She sets it down and backs away slowly, shaking her head. I lift the cover and...

And I wake up, my heart racing, my breath short, my forehead damp with perspiration. Because I know what's on the plate: cold tofu sandwiches on white bread - there are times when it truly doesn't pay to be a vegetarian - bland green beans, tasteless potatoes, hard rolls, limp lettuce and everywhere Jell-O, Jell-O, JELL-O!

At least I was spared the mystery meat.

Hospital food quality or lack thereof is a common complaint and a problem not limited to the U.S. A report in Britain found hospital food so bad that patients felt worse - and weighed less - when they left than when they checked in. And a doctor in New Zealand charges that the nutritional level of hospital food worldwide is so poor it's starving many already malnourished patients, especially the elderly.

Why oh why is hospital food so bad? Granted, we sick folk don't expect five-star cuisine, but does anybody do a decent job with the culinary end of medical care?

To be fair, food in a hospital isn't always awful - at least in the cafeteria or the doctors' lounge. The eatery at Pan American Hospital in Miami serves some pretty tasty Cuban food. People come in off the street to eat the primarily vegetarian fare in the cafeteria at Florida Hospital Orlando. And the doctor's lounge at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando has cuisine that's right up there with gourmet restaurants.

Up in patients' rooms, however, you usually hear a different story. Low salt. Low fat. No taste.

"Not enough attention is paid to that component of a patient's care," is how Dr. Clarence Brown, M.D. Anderson's president and CEO, explained the situation.

It's hard to prepare heart-healthy meals that also taste good, admitted Kurt Conover, director of business development for Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson. The medical center tried to be health-conscious in its cafeteria once and removed the grill. Employees and visitors were NOT happy, he recalled. The grill was shortly reinstated.

Actually, the food may not be as bad as we think it is. When people are ill, their tastes change and they often lose their appetite.

"Even the best tastes bad," Brown said.

But even hospital food has a big advantage over home-cooked.

"A lot of people," Conover said, "tell us they love the food because they don't have to cook it themselves."