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After disasters, hospitals pay it forward

By Elizabeth Landau and Jacque Wilson, CNN
April 29, 2013 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Trace Arnold brings barbecue to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on April 23 after staff there sent food to a hospital in Texas. Arnold, second from left, runs the 3 Stacks Smoke & Tap House in Frisco, Texas. Trace Arnold brings barbecue to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on April 23 after staff there sent food to a hospital in Texas. Arnold, second from left, runs the 3 Stacks Smoke & Tap House in Frisco, Texas.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A doctor from a Boston hospital sends pizza to a Texas emergency department
  • "The Rib Whisperer" hops a plane and supplies barbecue for Boston hospital staff
  • North Carolina nurses also order pizza to be delivered to Boston health care workers

(CNN) -- In times of despair, a good meal goes a long way.

The week of April 15 brought two horrific events: The Boston Marathon bombings and the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion. In each city, health care workers jumped into action to help victims of the tragedies.

In between trying to save lives, these doctors and nurses somehow found the time to support their colleagues across the country. What started as a single act of kindness turned into a culinary exchange that shows just how inspiring "paying it forward" can be.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon blasts, Nancy James, a registered nurse at the medical intensive care unit at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, North Carolina, wanted nurses in Boston to know that the nurses at her hospital were thinking about them.

During the pre-shift morning huddle on April 20, she asked if anyone would be willing to chip in a couple of dollars to order food for Massachusetts General Hospital's medical intensive care unit. The response was larger than she expected: $126, which she used to have pizza delivered to the Boston health care workers.

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"I think doing things like this is important," Blake said. "In this day and age, we've forgotten how to be kind to other people ... and take care of each other."

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Unbeknown to her, the Mass General emergency department staff had already sent an edible gift of their own. On April 18, Dr. Christopher Kabrhel had pizza delivered to the emergency department of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, Texas, which was treating patients from the deadly explosion the day before that damaged homes in a five-block area in nearby West.

With the pizza came a note: "Thanks for all of your hard work. From one member of the E.R. family. ..."

"It was an absolute surprise," said David Argueta, vice president of operations at Hillcrest. "Our ED (emergency department) obviously was blown away."

Attempts by CNN to reach Kabrhel for comment were unsuccessful.

After the Mass General ICU staff received their pizzas from North Carolina, they also reached out to Hillcrest, sending lunch and dinner to the Texas hospital's ICU on April 21.

A lot of nurses at Hillcrest were personally affected by the explosion and had relatives who were injured or lost their homes, so gestures such as this gift "really show the human spirit," Argueta said.

The chain of support didn't stop there.

Enter Trace Arnold, also known as "the Rib Whisperer." He runs a mobile barbecue restaurant called the Ultimate Smoker and Grill, and a stationary establishment called 3 Stacks Smoke & Tap House in Frisco, Texas. After the explosion in West, Arnold and his team served three meals a day for three days, feeding more than 5,000 victims and relief workers.

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"I just decided, you know what, let's go help," Arnold said.

One of the volunteers in West was Jill Barton, whose husband works at Hillcrest as a surgeon. She told Arnold about the pizzas that had been sent from the Mass General emergency department team to Hillcrest. Arnold decided to help Texas return the favor.

At 4 a.m. Tuesday, Arnold got on a plane to bring barbecue to more than 200 emergency department personnel at Mass General. Delta Air Lines allowed Arnold and his team to fly to Boston for free with 50 racks of ribs and 15 briskets.

Several staff members at Mass General wore cowboy boots for the occasion. A few had tears in their eyes as they dug in, Arnold said.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "We were tired -- we cooked for three days straight, 18 hours a day. I was tired and I was just feeding people. I knew these doctors had been working countless hours. ... They hadn't been eating and hadn't been sleeping."

Arnold gave Kabrhel a Texas flag that had traveled the country on Arnold's mobile smoker. The barbecue ambassadors also brought with them a large green Hillcrest hospital flag, signed by as many as 500 staff members who wrote encouraging messages on it.

While the Boston health care team enjoyed their barbecue, their counterparts at Hillcrest Skyped with them, Argueta said.

The next day Hillcrest received a lithograph of Mass General, which is now displayed in the administrative area of the emergency department.

"You share a common bond, especially in such a trying time," Argueta said. "The whole situation has been extremely therapeutic, I think on both sides, and just so uplifting."

Arnold will continue to pay it forward. He's convinced his corporate sponsors, such as Pepsi Co. and Frito Lay, to deliver food every week for the next month to emergency workers in West.

"In this crazy world that we live in nowadays ... it just seems right," he said. "We're all just doing our duty as people, as human beings."

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