Cupcake Man Project brings joy to patients, healthcare professionals

Spending your birthday in the hospital can be a difficult experience. However, a group of dedicated healthcare professionals is making the experience a little sweeter for patients at Ben Taub Hospital.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Niraj Mehta, associate professor in the departments of Family and Community Medicine and Internal Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, purchased a cupcake for a patient to celebrate his birthday. This spontaneous gesture eventually morphed into what is now known as the Cupcake Man Project.

Dr. Mehta offers more insight into what inspired the project in the following TED Talk and Q&A.

Q: How did the Cupcake Man Project begin?
A: I trained at Harris Health during medical school and residency. Given limited funding issues with our patients, I was taught to look for a date of birth on the patient’s paper chart ID stamp to see when he or she may turn 65 years old. As a third-year resident, I noticed that one of my patients wasn’t turning 65, but it was his birthday. I ran to the cafeteria and bought him a cupcake and wished him “happy birthday” at his bedside. He asked me to sing and I, along with the nurse and other patients who joined me, started to cry – as did the patient. It was as if we had instantaneously connected and empathy was established.

Starting in 1996, I started to celebrate patient birthdays as junior faculty at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital. When I moved over to Ben Taub Hospital in 2010, I started to wonder: “What if I celebrated every single birthday at Ben Taub?” Although hospitals across the country celebrate birthdays, none of them involved doctors or caregivers directly. We have now celebrated over 400 birthdays to date.

Q: Where does the project currently operate?
A: The project operates at Ben Taub. My goal is to expand it to LBJ, other Baylor-affiliated hospitals and, eventually, every medical school-affiliated hospital in country and beyond.

Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of this project for you?
A: The nonverbal clues of connection between the patient, surrounding family members, and doctors in training. The wealth of a soul is judged by what it feels and its poverty is judged by what it does not.

We have celebrated unique birthdays, including a mother with her newborn and celebrating the last birthday of a dying patient, with the family’s permission. The proof of our success has been in the portraits and testimonials that I have collected over the years.

Q: Where do you see the Cupcake Man Project going in the future?
A: My goal is to teach empathy at the bedside. I believe the Cupcake Man Project is a cost-effective, time-efficient tool that allows us to connect with each other and change the public perception of healthcare as one that lacks heart and humility. I hope to be able to use this project nationally and celebrate every single birthday at medical school-affiliated hospitals and beyond.

Visit the Cupcake Man Project website for more information.

-By Nicole Blanton

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