USA TODAY Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fisher Houses ease financial burden, stress

By Clay Carey, USA TODAY

Carol Thomas had gotten used to sleeping on recliners and hospital couches every once in a while as her husband, Bobby, got treatment for kidney and heart problems at the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital near Chicago.

But when doctors discovered cancer and had to remove Bobby’s kidneys, the Glenwood, Ill., couple learned they would be in for an extended stay.

Instead of hospital couches, Carol said she now has a real bed at a home made for families such as hers while doctors work on her husband, a 64-year-old Army veteran who served in Vietnam.

That’s because an organization called Fisher House opened a facility near the Illinois hospital in March — the most recently opened of 45 houses across the country that offer free lodging to veterans who have to travel more than 50 miles to get treatment at government-run Veterans Affairs hospitals, said Cindy Campbell, community liaison with the national Fisher House Foundation. Their families can stay for free, too.

“It has really been a home away from home,” said Carol Thomas, 56. She has been staying there since late April. “Without them, I don’t know what we would do.”

This year seven more houses will open, representing the most new ones opened in a single year in the organization’s 20-year history, said Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation. The current Fisher Houses are located on 18 military installations and near 15 VA medical centers.

Fisher’s uncle, Zachary Fisher, founded the charity two decades ago and built its first 22 houses with his own money.

“These young men and women are coming home in many cases with catastrophic wounds” that would have been fatal in previous conflicts, Ken Fisher said. For some, that means long hospital stays or frequent visits for rehab.

The organization has saved patients and their families nearly $150 million in lodging fees and transportation costs since its beginning, Campbell said. “So many (VA patients) don’t have the funds to stay in a hotel,” she said.

A place to heal

“It’s not just a place to lay your head. … It’s a place where you can recover,” L. Tammy Duckworth said.

Duckworth, 42, was a helicopter pilot with the Illinois Army National Guard. In November 2004, the helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Duckworth lost both legs and partial use of one of her arms.

Her husband lived at the Fisher House at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., during the four months she was hospitalized. Once she was released, they lived there together for nine more months.

Duckworth, who is assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs with the Department of Veterans Affairs, said living at a hotel during that time would have been prohibitive. She said she and her husband also benefited from the companionship of others at the home.

“There are other veterans and other family members there who know what you are going through,” Duckworth said.

The Fisher House Foundation builds houses and assists in the coordination of private support. The not-for-profit organization gets most of its money from private donations, though it has received some grants from the federal government, Campbell said. This year, President Obama donated $250,000 from his Nobel Peace Prize to the Fisher House Foundation.

Fisher Houses are given to the U.S. government as gifts. Military service secretaries and the Veterans Affairs Department are responsible for their operation and maintenance.

Some families have been staying at the Fisher House near Chicago for eight weeks, manager Holly Wright said.

“A significant number of our guests so far have come from out of state,” traveling from as far away as Florida and Texas, Wright said.

The hospital’s rehabilitation program for troops who have lost their sight draws patients from 16 states.

More sites to open

Fisher House plans to open a facility at the VA hospital in Boston this month and another in St. Louis in August, Campbell said. In the fall, it plans to open a house at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for families traveling to pick up the bodies of servicemembers killed in combat.

A Fisher House was built near the VA hospital in Dallas last year. The hospital provides care for veterans from North Texas and parts of Oklahoma and Louisiana, said Jim Boyd, a state council officer with the Vietnam Veterans of America in Texas.

“It looks like a house,” Boyd said, and the atmosphere is a more comfortable alternative for veterans’ families.

Fundraising efforts are underway to build Fisher Houses in at least 15 other cities.

A volunteer group is in the process of raising money for a Fisher House that would be built next to the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., giving temporary lodging to patients who have to travel for treatment at VA hospitals there or in Nashville.

The house would cater to patients such as A.J. Calabresi, a Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., veteran who comes to Tennessee for medical treatment.

Calabresi, 38, served in the Army during Desert Storm. Once a month, she travels about 100 miles each way to get treatment for a shoulder injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the travel, “I have to make five appointments in one day,” Calabresi said. “Having a place to stay would be so much less stressful.”

Carey reports for The (Nashville) Tennessean

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