Sara Carleton (right) and Betty Wickett decorate pumpkin rolls with cream cheese icing on Tuesday morning in preparation for Thanksgiving at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor. Nutrition staff have spent weeks preparing to make Thanksgiving dinner special for the patients and staff who are working the holiday.

Staff at hospitals large and small throughout Maine work hard to make sure patients, staff and their families don’t miss out on a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

At St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, preparations for the holiday dinner began in September so the meal would be extra special.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

“We focus on dessert,” Nutrition Services Director Peter Merritt said Tuesday as his staff put the finishing touches on cream cheese-filled pumpkin rolls and slid the last of nearly 200 pies into an oven.

“It’s important for patients to have something extra on Thanksgiving, and it’s a nice surprise for visitors,” he said. “Food is a part of healing, but when people are in the hospital, sometimes the only choices they make are about the food they get.”

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

The rolls, which the hospital kitchen has become known for in the Little City neighborhood it borders, are made by rolling a sweet filling in a thin cake. In addition to the pumpkin rolls, the kitchen makes a roll with chocolate cake and a peanut butter filling, and one with gingerbread and a vanilla-flavored filling. Staff make 300 Swiss-style rolls for the holiday. Apple, pumpkin, blueberry and mixed fruit pies also are a favorite.

Hospital staff will feed a traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey breast, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables to about 75 patients who are not on restricted diets. Another 400 or so free meals will be served to staff, their families and visitors.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Patients’ pie choices for Thanksgiving include pumpkin or apple, Merritt said. Or, they may choose a slice of the pumpkin roll.

On the other side of the Queen City, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center will serve nearly three times that number of meals to patients and staff, according to Paul Wetherbee, manager of retail food service.

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Wetherbee expected to serve at least 450 patients and an additional 950 employees and visitors at EMMC, the largest hospital in the region. That works out to 550 pounds of turkey, 100 pounds of stuffing, 350 pounds of potatoes, 200 pounds of peas, 400 pounds of squash, along with 35 gallons of gravy, he said.

Maine Medical Center in Portland will serve a few more meals than EMMC, feeding about 670 patients and 800 employees, according to Kevin O’Connor, director of nutrition and food service.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

“We work hard to provide nutritious meals every day. On Thanksgiving, we strive to do that while also celebrating the holiday and helping our patients, families and team members feel like they’re at home, too,” he said.

The staff at St. Joe’s share those goals, but most of what they spend two months baking and preparing is sold to staff and members of the community at an annual bake sale held Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving.

“The doors to the cafe open at 6:30 a.m., and by 9 a.m., everything pretty much will be gone,” Merritt said Tuesday.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

The money from the baked goods goes to support one of the hospital’s outreach programs through which staff members volunteer to cook and serve meals once a month at the Salvation Army, the Hope House and the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.

The baked goods have become a Thanksgiving Day tradition for a lot of families, Merritt said.

“My mom’s already called me to make sure I’m bringing the pumpkin roll for Thanksgiving dinner,” he said.