LONDON – David Wiseman heard Kath Ryan before he met her.
He was at the far end of Ward S-4 at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham when shouts of “Cake Lady’s here! Cake Lady’s here!” began rolling through the room full of wounded soldiers, bed by bed.
Who was this Cake Lady, he wondered, until he saw a middle-aged woman in a “strange dress'' pushing a trolley and handing out cake.
“When all you’ve seen is doctors and nurses and the odd relative, it was just a bit of an assault on the senses,” Wiseman remembered. “And she was doling out hugs and, you know, cakes. … She just brought joy into that place.”
That was 2009, a bloody time in the war in Afghanistan, when a steady stream of wounded soldiers flowed through Selly Oak needing love as much as medicine. Since then, retired nurse Ryan, 59, has made some 1,260 visits to British hospitals, bonding with the patients as she fed them an estimated 1 million slices of cake.
“I saw them at their worst,” Ryan said. “They could barely breathe, they were in so much pain. They were like skeletons with cling film on them.’’
But she kept coming.
“There are times in life you’re meant to be somewhere, aren’t you?’’ she said.
It all started when Ryan took a cake to her ill sister, who shared it with the troops. The wounded soldiers demanded their own treats, and Ryan returned with cake for 35.
But Ryan brought more than treats. She brought herself — bubbly, irreverent and fearless.
As she could see that most of the injured were in a terrible state, she never asked, “How are you?”
“I would go in with the trolley and apron and stand at the end of the bed, and say, ‘Can I lead you into temptation this evening?’" Ryan recalled. “Straight away, they would scream laughing.’’
One soldier got into the spirit and asked, “What’s on offer, love?’’
“Anything you want,” Ryan replied. “As long as it’s legal, moral and on the cake trolley.’’
Her weekly bake typically included six dozen Butterfly cakes — cupcakes with frosting sculpted in the shape of butterfly wings — together with 48 custard slices, Bakewell tarts, coconut cake, carrot cake, chocolate muffins, and more.
And if someone’s favorite wasn’t on offer, Ryan took requests: mince pies, fruit cake, Pavlova. When Estonian soldiers ended up on the ward, she tracked down a recipe for Estonian honey cake. For a group of South Africans, she learned to make brandy tart.
The cost of supplies grew so large she set up a charity, Cakes 4 Casualties, to help pay for all that butter and flour.
But it was never just about cake.
Over the past 11 years, the soldiers have become an extended family for Cake Lady, who isn’t married and never had children. They call her for hugs. They visit to help in the garden. They invite her to weddings, baptisms and anniversaries. They crowd-funded so she could join them at the Invictus Games, the sporting event for injured service people.
And the family keeps growing. Until COVID-19 restrictions stopped her visits, Ryan continued to take cake to every sick soldier at her local hospital. Now she’s baking for her local firefighters — just to stay in practice.
Recently, she faced a new test. A group of veterans asked her to bake a cake for Nora Jeffreys, a World War II veteran who was turning 100.
Ryan was terrified.
Feeding ravenous young people is one thing. But you only get one shot at someone’s 100th birthday.
Ryan ended up making vanilla sponge with icing in the colors of the British flag and decorated with the insignia of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Jeffreys’ wartime unit.
But Ryan couldn’t have a slice, as she is gluten-free for health reasons. So how, then, does she know if her cakes tastes good?
“I know,″ she chuckled, “by the look on your face when you eat it.″