Her gift of greeting may make your day

Rebecca Thomas shows her commitment to making the Center a friendly place to work, one person at a time
Joe Ross and Rebecca Thomas
Joe Ross, a graduate student in the Human Biology Division, talks with Rebecca Thomas — the woman behind the cafeteria cash register who miraculously recognizes just about everybody by name. Thomas' attention to detail, interest in others, adaptability and encyclopedic memory combine to earn the 26-year Center veteran high praise and gratitude. Photo by Dean Forbes

When Joe Ross, a graduate student in the Peichel Lab, started working at the Center a few years ago, he was surprised when a perky cashier from the Double Helix Café began greeting him daily by name. He didn't know how Rebecca Thomas even knew his name, but she never forgot it. And he never forgot how terrific her verbal welcome mat made him feel.

"Rebecca had absolutely no obvious need to know my name, yet learned it, and still greets me in passing, by name, every time," Ross said. "That says a lot about her character."

That character, packaged with an unbeatable work ethic, attention to detail and a genuine interest in people, have served Thomas well for more than a quarter century in the Center's Food Services department. Whether in her current role of ringing up lunchtime purchases or back in her early days as a research cook, Thomas brings her affinity for people and can-do spirit to 26 years on the job.

A perfect fit

"I think that Rebecca is a great employee because she truly loves her work and the Center and this 'spills out' into her everyday tasks," said Jan Oliver, Food Services manager and Thomas' supervisor.

Saundra Aker, a longtime employee who retired earlier this year as the Nutrition and Patient Food Services manager for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, hired Thomas in 1981. Prior to her arrival, Thomas owned a house-cleaning business, and Aker was one of her clients.

"In my home, I never had to remind Rebecca to do anything. Her work was just exceptional," Aker said. "I watched her attention to detail, her interest in people, the way she really thrived on offering personal service and thought, 'Gee, this lady's great.' I could picture her working well with patients, and I knew she'd fit right in with the research-kitchen staff."

Aker was spot-on about the research-cook position being perfect for Thomas. While Aker lost an amazing housecleaner, she gained a Center employee who thrived in patient food preparation for the next 16 years.

Cooking and caring

In the early 1980s, the Columbia Building atop First Hill served as the inpatient facility for about 20 bone-marrow transplant patients at a time. Along with cutting-edge research and clinical care, the Center was one of the first hospitals in the nation to offer a la carte food service, so patients could order anything they wanted to eat, 18 hours a day, seven days a week. All of the food had to be completely sterilized to minimize contamination for the immune-compromised patients, who lay behind walls of plastic with special venting to stave off germs.

Thomas' experience in fastidious cleaning came in handy in her new role. "Our kitchen was spotless. We were the cleanest group of people in the world," said Thomas. "We were all obsessive about it, and we were good cooks, too."

The job wasn't all about autoclaving and food prep, though. "Since we cooked for patients individually, we got to know all of the patients and their families," she said. "We took the order, made it, delivered it and picked up the dishes, so there was this constant contact with the patients. I just loved it."

Her secret skill

Mothers of young patients would sometimes appear at the kitchen door with special food requests from their youngsters. A child might want pancakes, but not just any pancakes. Only Mom's special recipe would do. So the mothers would share their secrets, the cooks would fix the meals to parent specification, and the appetite-poor child would finally eat. Mission accomplished.

Thomas enjoyed getting acquainted with all who were treated at the Center, and took special delight in meeting well-known patients. She fondly recalls conversations with astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan and Anatoly Grishchenko, one of the Soviet helicopter pilots who helped contain the Chernobyl disaster. Even now, she admits being a bit star-struck: "I'm on a first-name basis with three Nobel Prize winners. That absolutely blows my mind!"

Through the years, shifts in patient care caused Thomas' research-cook position to end, but she proved adept at reinventing herself and learning new skills. She established catering services in the Columbia Building and ran the Center's first espresso bar. In the late 1990s, she moved to her role of cashier, although she still moonlights in other Food Services positions.

Thomas admits cashiering isn't too challenging, so she stimulates her mind with her encyclopedic re-call of employee names. "You've got to have one talent in life, and mine is knowing people," she said.

Making contact

Thomas' recollection goes beyond names. In greetings peppered with "honey" and "dear," she'll often ask about the children and spouses of employees, with ears trained to pick up and later remember personal details. "Sometimes I think I act a little too familiar, but I can't help myself," she said. "I've gotten some people who would never even make eye contact to finally smile, joke or talk with me, and that's always a great feeling."

It's that cheerful service, that sense of being noticed and cherished that makes Thomas memorable to Center founders and grad students alike. "While Rebecca can be found doing the same repetitive job day in and day out, she always has a smile for those new employees whose names she hasn't had a chance to learn yet," Ross said. "She paints a picture of a hard worker who likes interacting with people and is dedicated to making the Center a friendly place in which to work."

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