Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

5 Ways to Help Bartending Coworkers Battling Illness

Ryan Johnson

People get sick in every industry. But in the bar business, with its lack of adequate health insurance, battling a serious illness can be a crippling burden. Raising money is often our first thought when it comes to mobilizing on behalf of a sick colleague—and make no mistake, it helps. But what happens after we’ve passed the hat? These are five ways to take care of our coworkers when they’re the most in need.

1. Practice Flexibility

When Bar Goto’s resident bartender Christopher Reed was diagnosed with ALS in May 2018, it wasn’t long before his colleagues at the New York City bar got together to raise money for his care. His prognosis: three years to live and wheelchair-bound in a year. To date, the team’s GoFundMe has raised more than $69,000 and has been shared more than 1,300 times on social media. But the amazing effort didn’t quite meet the $250,000 cost of care that Reed requires.

A year later, he’s still behind the bar. In addition to the fundraising, the team understood the importance of helping Reed maintain a sense of normalcy in his everyday life while also accommodating his limitations as supportively as possible. “He comes in to work, and if I can see that he’s not looking good, I’ll check in with him and see if he needs to go home,” says his employer, Kenta Goto. “As a team, we’re prepared to deal with that situation, and we’ve been very flexible to meet his needs.”

2. Provide Everyday Care

“When a person is ill, there’s a host of things that come after the discharge [from the hospital],” says Nashville bartender Rhonda Malone Cammon, who also has nearly 20 years of experience in the health care industry. “I have participated in many food trains where we all get together and sign up for meals and deliveries.” If you’re unable to personally lend a hand, Cammon suggests pooling resources with colleagues and organizing various community members to assist with daily care, which can include bathing, housework and cleaning, childcare, medication administration and the like.

“Assisting in job placement that does not require that person to be on their feet [can also be helpful],” she says. “I personally know a great bartender that cannot be on their feet. We worked together to get that person a bar education job where they sit and are still able to bring in income.”

3. Organize a Group Therapy Session

Terminal illness diagnoses often take a toll on a patient’s mental health. At industry conference Chicago Style, local bar entrepreneur Mony Bunni led a panel exploring mental health issues within the hospitality community. Panelist Jacqueline Carmody, a local mental health professional, spoke about some of the ways in which we can rally to support a terminally ill colleague who might be struggling with some of the mental health issues that come with physical illness. “Group therapy has been really helpful,” says Carmody, who hosts a weekly “Stress-free Sunday” for local professionals undergoing various health-related social stressors and lacking a safe space in the workplace.

It’s possible to organize such an event, she says, as long as it’s overseen by an unbiased mental health professional. “It’s important to have it facilitated by someone that’s not in a position of power in the workplace. You want someone who’s unbiased and can give direct feedback that’s outside of what the job role is.” Additionally, Carmody recommends planning a group format that consists of a defined beginning and end while ensuring that everybody participating can have a dedicated place for speaking about and understanding different experiences.

4. Publicize (When Appropriate)

Sometimes those suffering find solace in sharing their stories and spreading awareness about their particular experiences and illnesses with a wider audience. If this is something that’s communicated to you as a supporter, you might not know how to get the word out yourself, but there are plenty of resources out there to guide you.

In Reed’s case, it was important for him that awareness around ALS be shared with the community and beyond. Goto turned to his network to find out how to make that happen. “I spoke with some friends of mine in PR and marketing to ask for advice about [how to send] Chris’ words to the world,” he says.

Other options include self-publishing on platforms like Medium, for example. Once published, it can’t hurt to ask others to share your post via social media. Reed’s GoFundMe benefited significantly from being linked by widely publicized articles, which were shared en masse by industry members. “We’re very fortunate that we got a lot of support from within the industry by people who shared our message to a wider audience,” says Goto.

5. Spare the Questions

Someone dealing with a serious illness might not have the energy to tell you what they need, so be mindful of that and act accordingly. “I wish I could [have told] people to just send the card, send flowers, send whatever,” says Cindy Augustine, a beverage writer and contributor who was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer in 2017 (and is now in remission). “If you want to show you care, just do it. But don’t bother the sick person with questions like, ‘What can I do for you?’” Put yourself in that person’s shoes and figure out what you might want in their situation and then just do it. It’ll go a long way, and it’s so much better than doing nothing at all.