Wielding knives, dropping ingredients in hot oil, moving quickly on often-slippery floors — chefs encounter plenty of safety hazards every day. Xana Cook-Milligan was always careful. But in March, while at work at a restaurant in Pacifica, she performed the perfectly routine action of lifting a gallon of milk, and something popped. “This jolt of pain went from my wrist all the way up to my neck,” Cook-Milligan recounted.
To her dismay, the 32-year-old chef learned that she had seriously injured her wrist, without which the work of a chef is all but impossible.
Since then, navigating the complicated network of physicians, specialist referrals and workers’ compensation has not been easy. “It’s been a runaround of bad reports being filed,” Cook-Milligan said. She consulted multiple surgeons, none of whom was able to offer a fix.
Meanwhile, her disability checks were covering only two-thirds of her previous salary — and that’s not taking into account the overtime that Cook-Milligan often worked. Her income was dropping rapidly, and she was worried about putting food on the table for her daughter, Luella, 4. “I’m a single mom in the Bay Area,” she said. “This is not a cheap place to live.”
Panic began to set in.
Passion for cooking
Cook-Milligan grew up in Pacifica, the daughter of two teachers in a middle-class family. It was not a happy childhood. Her father, an alcoholic, was often abusive. The difficult conditions at home formed Cook-Milligan into a fiercely independent person.
This sense of independence was inherited, too, from her resourceful mother, who made the hard choice to leave Cook-Milligan’s father when she had only a part-time job. “She managed to not only support us financially but support us in an emotional way that was unknown within our family,” Cook-Milligan recalls.
Despite her mother’s support and example, “I was a difficult child,” she said. Though creatively driven and artistic, Cook-Milligan never thrived in school. “I wasn’t ready emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, to commit myself to anything.” She left school at 16, got a job in a cafe, and found that restaurant work — first serving, then cooking — exercised her creative energy.
Cook-Milligan dreamed of someday owning her own restaurant. It would be a full realization of her drive toward independence.
In her 20s, she decided to go back to school and enrolled at San Francisco State University. It hasn’t been quick or easy to finish her degree while working full-time and, now, raising Luella. “I’ve just been chipping away at it,” Cook-Milligan said.
By the beginning of this year, things seemed to be on the upswing. Cook-Milligan had a great restaurant job, was nearing the end of her studies, and had found a good day care program for Luella. Then, in March, the injury occurred.
It felt like Cook-Milligan was back at square one. Within a few months, the bills were piling up, even with child support from Luella’s father (“He’s a very good dad,” she said), and she was facing eviction from her apartment. Her stubborn independence made it overwhelming to imagine asking for help, from her family or otherwise.
“No one has ever paid my bills but me,” Cook-Milligan said. “It was so hard for me to say, ‘I need help.’”
Charity had a huge stigma for Cook-Milligan. Her parents were professionals; her younger sister is an associate at a big law firm. She thought of herself as the kind of person who donates to and volunteers with charities, not the type who takes from them. “Especially coming from my socioeconomic demographic,” she said, “I never would have thought of myself as someone who would sign up for benefit programs.”
It took a lot of willpower, but Cook-Milligan finally went to the Pacifica Resource Center — where she had previously been a volunteer — and worked with direct services manager Marina Castellanos to figure out her options.
“We’ve known Xana a long time — she has been a great part of the community,” Castellanos said. “Xana always took care of herself and was very proud of providing for her daughter. I know for a fact that she did everything she could possibly do before she came to us.”
Castellanos helped Cook-Milligan apply for housing assistance through The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund.
“I had no idea this wonderful group would pay my rent,” Cook-Milligan said. “That meant I was actually able to survive. Because I was looking at eviction.”
Now, Cook-Milligan has just one more semester at S.F. State. Her injury remains acute, and she still hasn’t found the right doctor. The debilitation of her wrist, she’s realizing, may be chronic — which means returning to the kitchen may never happen. “The silver lining is that I’ve really committed myself to wanting to become a teacher,” Cook-Milligan said. She hopes to teach the fourth grade.
‘I want to keep up’
In the meantime, her mother comes over a few times a week to help with housework that Cook-Milligan’s wrist injury prevents her from being able to complete on her own. She longs to be able to do all the cooking and cleaning on her own.
The thing she’s most looking forward to about getting her wrist back to normal? “Not having to remind my daughter to be mindful of my wrist when we’re playing or holding hands,” Cook-Milligan said. “She’s so high-energy. I want to keep up!”
Esther Mobley is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. You can follow her on Twitter: @Esther_mobley.
The original article can be found here.