It was a scene that, under normal circumstances, might have drawn a double take: a Zoom conference featuring 26 Baylor College of Medicine students in their home kitchens, simultaneously cooking a multi-course meal with live instruction from a blind professional chef.
But peculiar situations and unexpected collaborations have become par for the course in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced individuals, institutions, and entire industries to adapt and adjust.
Houstonian Christine Ha, chef and owner of The Blind Goat and newly opened Xin Chao, is no stranger to adaptation. Since being diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica (NMO) in her early 20s, leading to progressive loss of her bilateral vision, she has repeatedly reinvented and retrained herself both in the kitchen and in day-to-day life. By learning to trust her other senses and refusing to let disability restrict her potential, Ha went on to earn her signature achievement — winning season 3 of MasterChef as the TV show’s first-ever blind contestant.
Her inspiring story, culinary skills, and unique perspective as an individual with an autoimmune disease made Ha the perfect candidate to graciously lead a CHEF class for Baylor students.
CHEF (Choosing Healthy, Eating Fresh) is a student-run organization that seeks to supplement the nutrition curriculum at Baylor and to enhance understanding and accessibility of healthy foods within the Houston community. Volunteer activities include distributing educational materials at local health fairs and leading nutrition classes for refugee students and adolescents preparing for bariatric surgery.
CHEF officers also plan and administer a popular elective for second-year students featuring presentations by faculty or guest lecturers, followed by hands-on culinary classes taught by local chefs and home cooks. Limited by the pandemic, the elective went entirely virtual this year, requiring students to follow along at home as seasoned chefs such as Christine Ha lead the way from their laptop screens.
For our class, Chef Ha’s menu included Mapo tofu, dry-fried green beans, and a banana yogurt parfait, yet participants of the class came away with much more than delicious food. Narrating how she uses smell and touch to cook, the chef frequently sought feedback from the students, who adjusted to a blind instructor by exchanging nods for audible replies. Often riffing with her husband and videographer, John, Chef Ha covered a broad range of topics, including the meaning of “mise en place,” earnest marital advice (“learn to pick your battles!”), and her personal encounters with ableism.
During the final Q&A over dinner, the conversation became especially relevant. Chef Ha gave an insightful description of her experience with NMO, covering symptomatology such as bilateral optic neuritis and numerous bouts of paralysis, major differentiators from multiple sclerosis, and the evaluation she endured including lab work, MRIs, and lumbar punctures. This vulnerable, first-person account undoubtedly resonated more vividly than any clinical vignette could.
Furthermore, Chef Ha delved into her interactions with the American healthcare system. She recounted how her father had been laid off while caring for her mother who later died from cancer, and how she was held accountable as a jobless college student for the medical debt that arose as a result of her neurological condition.
Given her difficulty navigating the system as an educated patient with capacity for self-advocacy, it’s no wonder that so many people end up slipping through the cracks. Nevertheless, she commended the doctors, nurses, and staff who cared for her along the way, and how much of a difference they made when she felt despondent or alone.
Chef Ha closed the session with a final humanistic address: “People who go to med school and do it because they truly want to help other people — as long as you keep that vision and goal in mind, it will show, and that really makes a world of difference for patients. We all get hardened with life, but I really hope that candle is lit within you, and you graduate and make a huge difference in people’s lives, and in this world.”
Now that is a recipe worth following.
-By Ritodhi Chatterjee and Alexa Mason, fourth-year medical students and CHEF officers at Baylor College of Medicine