Alex Iafallo loaded the 20 chicken parmesan dinners into his Jeep Gladiator, cranked the heat up as high as possible and set off for Buffalo General Medical Center.
Iafallo, a 26-year-old Eden native who plays on the wing for the Los Angeles Kings, arrived on time, approximately 8 p.m. last Friday, and unloaded the cargo to deliver to his mother, Barb. The last step in his mission was a mandatory temperature check at the hospital's front door. A reading of more than 100 degrees would have prevented him from entering the building.
"He was 99.9 and the nurse said, ‘Oh, are you feeling OK? You’re pretty hot,’ " said Barb Iafallo, a nurse at the hospital for 30 years. "He said, 'Well, I had my clothes on and my coat, and I drove with the heat because I wanted to make sure I kept the food warm for my mom and her coworkers.' "
The nurse laughed and let Iafallo enter the lobby, where he and Barb loaded the food from Major Tom's Drop Zone in Hamburg onto a wheeled cart. The two posed for a picture before Barb returned with the dinners to the 16th floor, where she and her fellow nurses are caring for patients battling Covid-19.
It was the beginning of a 12-hour overnight shift for Barb, and her son's donation provided the floor's staff with a reprieve amid the chaos created by the coronavirus pandemic.
"I thought it would be a nice gesture, especially with my mom being a nurse," said Alex, who used it as an opportunity to help a local restaurant. "I know her coworkers are close to her, too, so I wanted to supply at least one meal for them. I got chicken parm from a local store and that was about it. I wanted to give back. They’re doing a lot of work and they have stressful jobs. It’s the least I could do."
The plan began shortly after the National Hockey League suspended play March 12 and Iafallo was in Los Angeles adhering to self-quarantining guidelines. He could sense during phone conversations with his mother that she was stressed, and he wanted to return home to help his parents.
Barb's floor was converted from an orthopedics and spine center to a Covid-19 unit. The staff is handling a larger caseload and, while the unit is not considered critical care, many patients are dealing with chronic issues that exacerbate their symptoms.
"I would just talk on the phone with her to see how she was doing," said Alex. "At some point, I wanted to get back and be able to help her out around the house since she’s working stressful nights. I wanted to make sure she was taking the right precautions. Obviously, being a nurse, she has all the info and stuff. Being able to come home and support her and the family is something I wanted to do. … You have to pay your respects to all the front-line workers for sure."
Iafallo packed up his car and began the 2,500-mile drive from Los Angeles to Buffalo. Using his vehicle's rooftop tent, Iafallo camped in Utah, Colorado and in teammate Cal Petersen's driveway in Waterloo, Iowa.
Since arriving in Western New York last month, Iafallo has helped his father, Tom, with various projects around the family's property. The bulk of the work has taken place in the yard, including cutting down trees, and Alex built a small bridge over a muddy section in the woods behind their home.
Iafallo's daily routine is structured so he's awake when his mother arrives home from work at about 8 a.m. He asks about her shift and if there is any housework he can do while she rests. Alex wanted to do more, though, and he decided on a food donation for the hospital.
Alex initially wished to buy meals for the entire hospital, but a project of that size would create several logistical challenges. His mother encouraged him to start with a smaller donation, and the two worked through the details.
After the meals arrived on the hospital floor, staff members created two signs thanking Alex for the donation — one signed by every nurse on the floor and another that read, "Alex, thanks for the eats." One nurse later sent homemade cookies home for Alex.
"The staff just loved it," said Barb. "I’ve been working up there 30 years with a lot of them, so we talk and they know our family. They were excited and appreciative. ... It makes a difference. It’s chaos all night, but you can go in and you don’t have to worry about your dinner. It’s set and it’s warm."
Alex joked that this was his way of repaying his mother for the homemade spaghetti and meatballs she used to pack for his youth hockey tournaments. Rather than eating at a restaurant after games, Iafallo preferred to stay at the hotel and his teammates would gather in the family's room to eat pasta. She still prepares the meal whenever Iafallo is home and, under normal circumstances, makes enough to feed his friends.
The homemade pasta fueled Iafallo before he spent four seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He has played 227 games across three seasons with the Kings and scored a career-high 17 goals in 70 games prior to the NHL's suspending this season. When he's not helping his parents around the house, Alex is preparing for the possibility he will have to return to Los Angeles to finish the Kings' final 12 games.
He's using workout equipment in the family's home and rollerblades on the rink his parents built in the backyard. Iafallo plans to make another food delivery to Buffalo General and has contributed to other programs that provide meals to front-line health care workers in Western New York.
"The least I could do is supply one meal for her and the hospital since she’s made so many for me during all the hockey seasons, making food," Iafallo said.