ALS patient continues dinner tradition with the help of a volunteer

By lin sue cooney

Whether it’s Hungarian paprika chicken, sausage lentil soup or Brussels sprouts with pickled onion, Mark Adinolfi loves to try new recipes. He is happiest feeding his passion: Whipping up gourmet dishes for his wife Jeanne and daughter Sophia.

But in January 2016, Adinolfi was diagnosed with ALS, a type of muscular dystrophy sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease. At first, Adinolfi noticed a loss of strength in both hands. As his condition progressed, he was no longer able to prepare meals — even though his heart ached to be in the kitchen, chopping, dicing, sauteing.

“Because of ALS, I can’t provide other things as much,” Adinolfi explains, “but I still wanted to spoil my wife, who appreciates good food.”

Thanks to a marvelous assistant, Adinolfi is still a chef. Hospice of the Valley volunteer Jeff Riddle has become Adinolfi’s hands. Though he calls himself “a reluctant cook,” Riddle dutifully executes the detailed instructions Adinolfi gives from his motorized wheelchair — from sprinkling Aleppo Turkish pepper on potato slices to slicing apples just the right thickness.

“This disease isolates me. But a wonderful guy comes into my life and sometimes when he shows up, I say, ‘Dude, we’re cooking whatever falls out of the fridge,’” Riddle says with a laugh.

“Cooking and sharing a meal with Mark and his family is the best thing that I do,” Riddle says with passionate emphasis. “We improvise a lot due to his prowess and it always tastes amazing!”

Every Friday, the Adinolfi kitchen is filled with laughter. The weekly ritual is something both men, now fast friends, anticipate with excitement. They tease and joke as if they’ve always known one another. Sophia even decorated an apron for Riddle. The 11-year-old inspects the meat to make sure it’s brown enough before going in the oven. A beaming Jeanne sets the table, savoring the happy noises and the tantalizing smell of caramelized onions.

About an hour later, dinner is served: beautifully roasted pork tenderloin with green apples and rosemary potatoes. The meal is perfect.

But it’s not really about the food.

“Jeff met me in a wheelchair,” Adinolfi says. “He’s not like an old friend who maybe has a little sadness in their eyes. Jeff knows me exactly as I am now… He’s a genuine new friend.”

Such friendships are waiting for anyone who might feel moved to volunteer with a family.

“There is nothing more powerful you can do as a human being than walk alongside people who are facing incredible challenges,” Jeff gushes. “It feels incredible, and what you receive far exceeds anything that you can give.”

If you’re interested in providing companionship to Hospice of the Valley patients and offering support and respite to their families — whether it’s cooking reading, singing or just being present and caring — we’d love to have you join our volunteer family.

For more information, go to hov.org/volunteer or call 602-530-6900.

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