Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the monitors run. Indicators beep, IV's flow and tiny bodies struggle to live.

The Intermountain Newborn Intensive Care unit at the University Medical Center is a hubbub of continuous activity. Nurses work 12-hour shifts; doctors are always on call. Yet, in the midst of this concentrated dedication the staff has found a way to relax.

Food.

Since the inception of the unit nurses have carried food to work. Not just their brown bag lunches, but also something special for those who kept the grueling hospital pace.

According to Dr. Gary Chan, unit director, "The food was like a pacificer; it served as a comfortable diversion from the minute-to minute pressures of patient care."

Thus, an idea was born. Chan began asking for recipes. He wanted the goodies that came to work to be shared at home as well.

Finally, the idea was expanded and took the from of a cooking contest. That way Chan, and everyone else, would have copies of the best recipes.

A tradition began five years ago with the first department cook-off. There were about 25 participants, all staff nurses. Chan recalled, "We organized the event for fun. I had been overwhelmed with the culinary talents of the nurses. There was an excitement in the possibility of sharing those talents. I was the sole judge; the winner walked off with a Norman Rockwell calendar as first prize.

Enthusiasm grew for the contest. And the event produced a camaraderie in the unit.

By the second year, the number of entries had doubled. Categories were established and additional prizes were offered.

By the fifth year of the cook off the project has become popular throughout the hospital. Staff from other departments participate in the event, although the Newborn Intensive Care unit remains the anchor for the project. Guests come from all corners of the hospital to sample the contest fare. Ticket sales and subsequent cookbook sales benefit in-service education for staff nurses.

Entries in this year's contest numbered nearly 100. The contest has grown in other ways. Presentation of the food and the quality of the recipes have improved. Competition has increased, too. Some people plan and experiment for a year before deciding on an entry. Others whip something together the night before and walk off with a prize.

This year's grand prize winner was Noreen O'Hara, who won for her Baked Chicken with Quince and Pomegranate Sauce. O'Hara also took a first place with a Fir Tree Bread recipe. As awards were announced, the nurse was frustrated. Her chicken platter was spotlessly clean; "every scrap was gone and I hadn't won a prize. It didn't make sense. Then, as I expressed my disappointment, people were surprised. I had been awarded the grand prize but missed the announcement."

O'Hara has participated in the contest each year, taking a first prize annually. Her initial entry was a "tried and true old family recipe," Irish Potato Soup. She loves to cook and devours gourmet magazines and cookbooks in search of interesting recipes. The search paid off this year.

Last year's winner, Debbie Stevens, entered in 10 categories, taking first in seven.

Stevens started cooking two days before the contest deadline. "It was a non-stop process for 48 hours -- well I did sleep for two hours before I started packing the car to transport my entries to the center," Stevens remembered.

What motivates such a performance? Stevens admiteed, "I'm an overachiever, at least that's what everyone tells me. In reality, I love to cook. I like to try new recipes. My family all cooks and has been excited about cooking for years. I grew up in an experimental kitchen. Not only do I like to cook, but I like to find novel ways of presenting food."

For the salad entry, Stevens prepared an Italian Vegetable Toss. Rather than serving the salad in a bowl, the nurse carved away the inside of an Italian bread loaf. She placed a French bread baking tube in the hollow, then filled loaf with the salad vegetables. One-fourth of the judging points are scored with presentation; Stevens' creativity was a winner.

Stevens laughed as she remembered her entry in the children's category that melted away. "I made ice cream cone clowns, decorated some, and then displayed the entry as an activity for the party itself. I left it in the freezer until the last minute, but there was nothing left for the judges to observe. They threw the whole entry, bowls and place mat included, in the trash. When I returned for the prize announcement, I had won with an invisible presentation."

The cook-off recipes are available in the Neonatology office at the Midical Center. Cookbooks are $4 if picked up at the hospital; $5.50 by mail. For further information, call 581-7052.