Growing up in his mom’s kitchen, Clay Erickson helped cut vegetables, stir soups and bake cakes. He made his first batch of lasagna when he was just 6 years old. When he wasn’t cooking with his mom, he was watching her take care of his father, a U.S. Army Air Corps paratrooper who was diagnosed with polio at 28 and eventually needed 24-hour care.
Nothing could have prepared him better for his job as culinary supervisor at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois.
“I am empathetic to people who struggle in life, not just with cancer, but also with disabilities—with anything,” Erickson says. “Watching my mom take care of my dad until the day he died helped me prepare to be with the patients and caregivers I meet every day.”
When Erickson isn’t supervising a large staff of culinary specialists and making sure the stations are manned and the supplies are stocked, he’s talking to patients, caregivers and guests in the dining room. A few years ago, he met a patient and her husband who changed his life.
The couple were sitting at a table in the hospital dining room, and Erickson noticed they looked a little scared. The woman was wearing a bandana on her head. “I just walked up to her and said, ‘Can I give you a Kiss of Hope?’” Erickson recalls. “She didn’t even ask what that was. She just said, ‘Yes.’” Erickson gently removed her bandana and kissed the top of her head. Her eyes lit up and a smile spread across her face. With that, the Kiss of Hope was born. “It’s evolved quite a bit since then,” Erickson says with a chuckle.
His random act of kindness has morphed into a powerful experience for hundreds of cancer patients and their caregivers. Now, whenever Erickson spots a bandana or a bald head in the hospital dining room, he is quick to offer hope and encouragement through a kiss. He always asks patients if it’s OK—no one has ever said no. By Erickson’s estimate, he has served up more than 300 kisses.
Although he is quick to point out to the patients that there is no medicinal value in the kiss, the therapeutic benefits of Erickson’s kindness and compassion can’t be denied. “I tell them, ‘During this journey, you’re going to have peaks and valleys,’” Erickson says. “‘In a valley, just remember this funny-looking 6-foot-2-inch Swede who planted one on top of your head.’”
The patients smile. They laugh. They feel better. “It’s merely one way of showing our patients and caregivers how much we love them,” Erickson says.
In addition to providing support to patients in the hospital dining room, Erickson also gets special requests. One afternoon, he was in the dining room when a nurse told him a young patient needed a kiss. Chelene Logan wasn’t feeling well and could use a little hope, Erickson recalls. He walked into the hospital room and asked the weak-looking woman lying in bed if he could remove her knitted cap. Logan’s grandmother took a picture as Erickson bent down to give her a Kiss of Hope.
The moment was powerful, Erickson says. The three started crying and embraced. “There was something in the room that took over everybody,” Erickson says. “They see that it’s true love. It’s coming from my heart.”
Erickson took a few moments to compose himself before saying goodbye and getting back to the kitchen. Eight days later, he was at the dining room register when Logan came running across the room and into his arms. The color was back in her smiling face. “It was indescribable,” Erickson says.
Although Erickson knows the Kiss of Hope has no medicinal value, some of the patients kid around with him about it. “Patients who I haven’t seen in six months come in and have hair on their heads,” Erickson says. “‘Look what that kiss did!’ they’ll joke.”