Wexner patient spreads cheer with cookies


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Illness has stolen a lot from Carma Schilling. It’s taken away her energy. It’s left her unable to work as a nurse. It’s sent her to the hospital more than anyone should ever go to the hospital.

Sometimes it gets to her.

“It is depressing,” she said this week, back in Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center again. “You build your whole life around helping other people …”

Wait. Stop. There’s sadness in this story, but this isn’t a story about sadness. Schilling wouldn’t want it to be that way. In fact, she doesn’t want this story to be about her at all, but as you’ll see, there’s no way around it.

Without Schilling, there is no Cookie Lady.

Some background: Schilling, 48, is a married mother of five boys from Marietta, 120 miles southeast of Columbus. She was a nurse at various places for nearly three decades.

Multiple cesarean sections and abdominal troubles have left her, as she calls it, “walking scar tissue” for the past decade. Eating and drinking is difficult. Her body doesn’t absorb what it needs. Her intestines are like a garden hose that’s constantly kinking. Her abdomen swells until she looks heavily pregnant.

It’s gotten to the point where she needs to check into the hospital monthly to knock down the swelling and build up her strength. She waits until she can’t take it anymore, and then an ambulance picks her up for the long ride to Columbus.

That’s when she makes her call, right there from the squad.

For cookies.

She dials up Cheryl’s on the main floor of the hospital and places her order. Sometimes 72 at a time — individually packaged, frosted, cinnamon, chocolate chip. They’re waiting for her in her room when she arrives.

Her room, by the way, smells of cookies. Or something sweet, some fragrance she uses to mask that ominous hospital odor. Someone, she doesn’t know who, has left her a colorful bouquet with a note: “We love you cookie lady!”

It’s Tuesday, and she’s been in the hospital for 10 days, and you can tell she’s weary. Her arm is bruised from attempts to place yet another IV. She moves around slowly in baggy Ohio State pajamas.

But remember, this isn’t about her.

This is about the cookies.

She loads three bags onto her bedside cart along with a tray of flowers — she salvages good flowers from left-behind bouquets and hands out tiny arrangements — and rolls the display onto the hospital’s 10th floor.

She pauses at a door. “Knock, knock! I got cookies! What kind you want? I’ve got frosted, snickerdoodles, chocolate chip …”

Schilling knows firsthand how hard it is to be a medical professional. A few years ago, she was in the emergency department and someone who was treating her mentioned that they hadn’t eaten. She handed over some cookies. The next time, she brought even more, passing sweets out down the hallway. It’s been that way since.

“I do it for the smiles,” she says.

Schilling turns a corner and runs into Patient Care Associate Kelley Berry, who accepts a frosted pineapple coconut pastry with a grin.

“She always has the delicious cookies,” Berry says, calling out after Schilling. “Thank God for her!”

Hospital employees don’t know much about the Cookie Lady. They take note when she hasn’t been around for a while. They wonder about her. She’s the sick one, but she constantly asks them how they’re doing.

“She comes around and brings everybody cookies and makes us all smile, especially when we’re stressed out and running around,” says Laura Verhotz, a registered nurse. “She cares about us a lot.”

Schilling said she does care. A lot. But truth be told, she’s getting something out of all of this, too. The Cookie Lady feeds off the reactions she gets. She’s found purpose in her pastries.

When she sees those smiles, at least for a moment, being in the hospital doesn’t seem so bad.

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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