Louisa Batista is justifiably proud that in five decades she’s never taken a single day off sick — for it’s an extraordinary 50 years since, at the age of 18, she began working at St Thomas’ Hospital in London
Louisa Batista is justifiably proud that in five decades she’s never taken a single day off sick — for it’s an extraordinary 50 years since, at the age of 18, she began working at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
During the height of the pandemic, when lots of staff were off sick, Louisa was there — standing in at a moment’s notice to cover the absences.
She was also with her colleagues working through the night to make sandwiches for emergency workers during the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005.
It’s not just her work ethic that makes Louisa special, it’s about the extra mile she goes for those in her care.
Louisa, who is thought to be one of the longest-serving chefs in the NHS, understands that food can be a great comfort — and when patients are very ill and near the end of their lives, she always takes the trouble to meet them and find out their favourite foods.
‘There have been countless times where Louisa has hunted down rare ingredients for patients and she’s incredibly knowledgeable about different diets,’ reveals Alastair Duncan, the principal dietitian at the trust.
Christmas is always one of the highlights of Louisa’s year. For 40 years, she has insisted on working every Christmas Day morning, preparing turkey and all the trimmings — including her special prune and apple stuffing.
Hospital staff benefit from her kindness, too, as Louisa is famous for putting on a good spread for birthdays or anniversaries.
‘She is always thinking of others,’ says Corrinne Habbershaw, the production catering manager at the hospital.
‘Everyone knows and loves Louisa — she’s our hospital treasure.
‘She has a passion for the food she makes, a fantastic work ethic and a big heart. She might be only 5ft tall, but she’s most definitely worth her weight in gold.’
When asked about why she goes the extra mile, Louisa says simply: ‘It makes me feel good to think that my food has given someone pleasure in their last days. I think of how I’d like my own mother, who is 87, to be treated.’
And what about her exceptional work ethic? ‘I think it’s the way I was brought up,’ she says. ‘If ever I didn’t feel well, my mother would tell me to just get on with it — and I always have.
‘But I also don’t want to let my workmates down. They have been like another family to me ever since I arrived in this country.’
In July 1970, when Louisa moved to the UK from Alhandra in Portugal, apart from a cousin, she didn’t know a soul here.
Five days later, she got a job at the hospital as housekeeper. Louisa, 68, who lives in Vauxhall, South London, with her partner Julian (the couple have a son James, who is 35), explains that when she arrived in London she was ‘very lonely’ at first.
‘I missed my four sisters and friends at home, but I will never forget how my NHS colleagues looked out for me — and that kindness is something that has always stayed with me.’
Louisa soon went from taking the food trolley around the wards to working in the kitchens and, eventually, training to be a chef. She slotted in very easily.
‘I couldn’t speak much English, but when I took the food trolley round the wards, the patients taught me and I soon picked it up. I quickly made friends with colleagues, too. I was really happy with my new life.’
three years later, Louisa started as a trainee chef and learned her trade by watching her colleagues.
‘In those days, we even made all the bread for the hospital patients, so you learnt how to do everything,’ she says. ‘Before I came here, I couldn’t even fry an egg!’
Within five years of starting, Louisa, who met Julian in the hospital kitchen when she was 25 (he was 27 and worked as a pastry chef), was promoted to diet chef.
During the height of the pandemic, when lots of staff were off sick, Louisa was there — standing in at a moment’s notice to cover the absences. The hospital is pictured above
Her new role found her preparing around 70 meals a day for patients with special dietary requirements, such as allergies, working closely with hospital dietitians. Today, she is one of a team preparing up to 3,500 meals a day.
Louisa is also entrusted to work on recipe development — preparing trial dishes before they have been put on the menu.
During the coronavirus pandemic, she has played a particularly important role, working with dietitians to develop a high-protein snack menu for Covid-19 patients who needed to build up their strength but couldn’t manage big meals.
‘All the meals at St Thomas’ are cooked on the premises, which is unusual these days,’ says Louisa.
‘But people always say how good our food is — we have won awards. I’m really proud of the food we produce and that I play a small part in it.’
Louisa has been nominated for the Daily Mail Health Hero Awards by Corrinne Habbershaw, not just for her unstoppable service (‘And she shows no sign of slowing down,’ says Corrinne), but also for her unstinting kindness.
There can be little doubt that her colleagues love her. ‘For her recent 50th work anniversary party, we told her it would be small, but actually 100 people turned up (socially distanced, with masks),’ says Corrinne.
Alastair Duncan says there is no one more deserving of a Health Hero Award. ‘Louisa is one of the many people working so hard behind the scenes in the NHS — the unsung heroes who work so tirelessly but often don’t get the same recognition that doctors and nurses do.’
We’d like you to nominate your own unsung Health Hero. It could be a hospital chef like Louisa, a porter, a consultant or a nurse — anyone who you feel deserves recognition.
Louisa is also entrusted to work on recipe development — preparing trial dishes before they have been put on the menu. During the coronavirus pandemic, she has played a particularly important role, working with dietitians to develop a high-protein snack menu for Covid-19 patients who needed to build up their strength but couldn’t manage big meals
This year our awards, which are launched in association with eBay and NHS Charities Together (which represents 230 charities in the health service), include two new separate categories.
The first is the Mental Health Hero Award, to highlight the unsung work of those who specialise in this often very difficult field. The other is an eBay Health Hero Award, to recognise volunteers who support health professionals working in the NHS.
Rob Hattrell, vice-president of eBay UK, says : ‘The NHS is the backbone of this country, and we are honoured to be able to publicly celebrate and thank the incredible individuals who have come together to support us when we needed it most.’
As for Louisa, when asked if she could ever imagine leaving the hospital where she has worked for half a century, the answer is an emphatic no. ‘I absolutely love my job,’ she says, ‘and that’s why I have never left.
‘I have no plans to retire. I will leave when they kick me out!’