Project Angel Heart

Small Intervention, Big Impact

It’s the thought of cake that makes Susan DiNapoli Guyton cry.

Even though the summer of 2018 hit the executive director of the Sue DiNapoli Ovarian Cancer Society with a divorce and a breast cancer diagnosis, she speaks about those parts of her life in a very straightforward manner.

But get her talking about the impact Colorado Springs Health Foundation funded partner Project Angel Heart has had on her and her son from the very first meal the two received four days after her double mastectomy, and she chokes up.

“They show up with the meals … two big bags of food which weigh more than I can lift,” Guyton says. She asks her 10-year-old son to help so he drags the bags over to the refrigerator and begins to unload them when he comes across a little cake. “It says ‘Happy Birthday,’” he tells her. “I wonder why they’d send that.”

“And I said, ‘Well, buddy, it’s your birthday next week. You know, Monday, you’re gonna be 11.’”

Underneath the cake, they found a card, wishing him a great birthday and signed by Project Angel Heart staff and volunteers.

“Here’s my kid who’s just had such a tough time, and now he’s got to take out the trash, he’s got to do all the laundry, he’s got to — I can’t pick up a gallon of milk,” she says. “My kid almost didn’t even realize that his birthday was two days away. That’s the bubble we were living in at that exact moment. And it was so touching to have somebody who didn’t even know him send him a birthday cake. That just made our whole day better, the whole situation sweeter.”

Guyton is just one of about 250 local clients a week who receive medically modified meals through Project Angel Heart. The nonprofit with offices in Colorado Springs and Denver prepares and delivers multiple entrées a week at no cost to those with life-threatening illnesses. Colorado Springs alone is on pace to deliver 67,000 meals during 2018.

“We’ve been doing this for 27 years,” says Sally Rothstein, Colorado Springs Regional Manager. “We’re effective at the meals we prepare, and what’s nice is they’re making a difference.”

Project Angel Heart recently received results from a long-awaited program evaluation study conducted in partnership with the Center for Improving Value in Health Care.

The results are impressive. According to the study — the largest of its kind in the country to date — Project Angel Heart’s medically tailored meals led to a 13-percent decrease in hospital readmissions; a 24-percent average reduction in total medical costs for people with congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or diabetes; and a cost reduction of up to $555 on hospital stay expenses for those same clients (as well as those with end-stage renal disease).

These results led Project Angel Heart in October to up the number of meals a client receives each week by forty percent.

“I would say there are two commitments that we have,” says Rothstein. “One is that the food is delicious and then that it is meeting people’s medical needs within the scope of our program.” Which is a challenging task in itself — the study also showed that on average their clients are living with seven to eight co-morbidities. They might have a single life-threatening illness, or they might have multiple, but one client could be dealing with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and depression.

“When I heard that, what immediately came to my mind was, that’s a tough day,” Rothstein says. “I don’t know about you, but even if I have a cold, I feel like reaching for what’s convenient, and that certainly is not typically what’s healthy and the best for supporting my body.”

Of course Guyton would add that Project Angel Heart’s work goes way beyond the basics. “It’s not just healthy food that’s easy and convenient. … It’s more than just the meal. It’s the hope. It’s the connection. It’s the love that they give to the community.”