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South Portland Man Turns Grief into Sweets for Patients at Maine Med
12/21/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

For the past 14 years, Jack Gibson has had a strict ritual: Every Sunday, he packs up homemade shortbread cookies and delivers them to patients and staff at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Gibson learned to make shortbread cookies from his wife, who died of cancer more than 20 years ago. The weekly cookie tradition is his way of honoring her memory, giving back - and receiving something as well. Patty Wight has the story.

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South Portland Man Turns Grief into Sweets for Pat Listen
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Jack Gibson

Jack Gibson with some of his home-baked shortbread cookies.

If you want to get a sense of just how devoted 83-year-old Jack Gibson is to his cookies, stop by his office in South Portland: It's got a full kitchen outfitted with an industrial-sized mixer.

"I'm putting in the butter first," he says. He makes a range of flavors, from coconut, to pecan, to his personal favorite: "Chocolate chips!" he chuckles.

Gibson learned to make shortbread from his late wife, Susan, who was from Scotland. Every holiday season, they'd make these cookies as gifts. Back then, they kneaded by hand and Susan was the ever-watchful expert.

"I'd say, 'Oh! I'm all set. All done.' 'Oh no, knead some more,'" he recalls.

They were married for more than 35 years. They had a family. Gibson ran a successful paving business that brought him to towns across the state. In the mornings, he and Susan would catch up over a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

One morning, he noticed she had a bad cough. And before too long, they discovered that Susan had lung cancer. Within about a year, she was at the end of her life. Four days before she died, she told Gibson that she wanted to do something for Maine Medical Center, where she had received treatment. Gibson had done well in business and was prepared to fulfill her request.

"I said, 'Honey, you tell me how much.' Because I knew exactly what she was getting at. I said, 'You tell me how much, and I'll match it.' And that's how the Gibson wing became a fact," he says.

The Gibson Cancer Pavilion, which is dedicated to adult inpatient care, opened in 1998 - and that's when the cookie tradition began. Gibson thought it would be nice to make shortbread cookies and bring them to staff, in honor of Susan.

"And when I first brought the cookies up, some of the staff said, 'Where'd you buy this, Jack?' I said, 'I made it.' 'Aww, get outta here! These are good!' I got so many compliments, I decided to keep doing it," he says.

Fourteen years in, he's still at it. Gibson scoops dough onto cookie sheets in his office kitchen and slides them in the oven. He makes enough so he can also give cookies to patients.

"And one of the first questions I ask when I meet somebody is, 'Where you from?'" Gibson says. "They'll mention a town, and usually I'll know someone in that town because I've worked in all the towns. I'll mention a name. 'Oh, that's my cousin! You know my cousin?' It perks them up."

This batch of chocolate chip shortbread cookies is done. A few days later, on Sunday, Gibson arrives at the Cancer Pavilion with a bag of boxed cookies.

"Good morning," he says, greeting the staff. "Hey Jack, how are you?" asks one. "Fine thanks, yourself?" he replies.

Gibson asks if there are any patients who would like a visit. He often develops friendships with patients. But on this day, they're all new to him.

"Mrs. Erskine! How are you this morning?"

"Well, I'm here," she replies.

"Jack Gibson," he says introducing himself. "Glad to meet you. One Scotsman to another."

Gibson finds out she's from Freeport - and sure enough, he's got a name.

"Good friend of mine, Guy Erskine - does that name ring a bell?" he asks. "He was public works director."

"Yes, he was my brother in law," she says.

"Is that right? Great guy."

"Yep."

Gibson chats easily with Mrs. Erskine, as he does with other patients. He says he only talks about cancer if they bring it up. Sometimes his experience is helpful to others, because not only did he lose his wife to cancer, he's a three-time survivor himself. But that doesn't come up today.

Gibson stays at the hospital for as long as people want to visit - sometimes it's just a couple hours, other times, it's the bulk of the day. Before Gibson says goodbye to Mrs. Erskine, he offers some cookies.

"Ohhh - I want these!" she says.

Staffers say Jack Gibson's visits offer much more than cookies. "The patients that we have here are here, a lot of times, for a really long time. And it's boring. It's monotonous," says Nurse Meghahn Milliken.

Milliken says human interaction is a powerful medicine. "And to have just a fresh face who's just, 'Hey, how ya doin' today? I'm here just to have a conversation with you.' I think that's huge for a lot of our long-term patients."

Milliken's respect for Gibson is evident: Her youngest son is named Jack, and it's no coincidence. Gibson says he also gets a lot out of the weekly visits to Maine Med. He sold his paving business eight years ago, and while he's still busy with other projects, and has even remarried, he says he misses the social connections from work.

"Oh, it gives me a lot of satisfaction - oh yeah," he says. "I mean, I love to hear someone say, 'Ooh - I've never had cookies like this before.' That's all I need, really, is to know that people like it, enjoy it. And I'll keep on doing it - as long as I can."

Photo by Patty Wight.



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