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Fisher House puts out welcome mat for families of vets in medical treatment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 10, 2010 - Georgeann McKee of Paducah, Ky., was moved to tears as she explained how free lodging at the new St. Louis Fisher House at Jefferson Barracks has enabled her to be at the side of her 36-year-old son, a critically ill U.S. Army veteran who is undergoing cancer treatment at a city hospital.

"It's like this big glove that says, 'You are welcome. You are safe,' " said McKee, 55, in a soft voice as she rested in the communal family room Monday before leaving for the hospital to visit her son. "It's like being at home. The rooms are comfortable, and the staff is impeccable and so sweet."

McKee said that she and her daughter-in-law could not have afforded to stay in a hotel during their extended stay in St. Louis -- now in its second week -- and the four-hour trip home made commuting impossible. But she would have found a way because her son needs them here.

"I guess I'd have had to borrow against my house," she said, matter-of-factly.

The Fisher House, which officially opened in September, provides free short-term lodging for families of veterans undergoing treatment in St. Louis. The home has 20 bedroom suites, plus kitchen and laundry facilities, and accommodates families who live at least 50 miles from St. Louis. The site offers a spectacular view of the Mississippi River and serves both the Jefferson Barracks and John Cochran VA medical centers.

McKee said that staying at the house has lifted one weight from her shoulders, as she and her family cope with her son's illness.

"I am so grateful for this place," she said.

Ongoing Support Needed

Rachael Fernandez, who manages the Fisher House, said that she quickly discovered that it is the veterans who most appreciate the facility because they don't have to worry about where their families are staying.

Some veterans in long-term care will ask to see the house before their families arrive and are pleased, and often surprised, to find that the facility is furnished as comfortably as a fine hotel. That was the case with a Jefferson Barracks patient who recently toured the facility before his wife's visit.

"He said, 'If she isn't happy here, she won't be happy anywhere,' " Fernandez said, smiling.

The house, which started accepting guests after its "soft opening" in July, can accommodate about 40 people. Fernandez said it will probably take about a year for the house to reach full capacity, as word spreads through the VA's social services network.

The ceremonial groundbreaking for the house was held on Veterans Day in 2008. Though rain forced the celebration indoors that afternoon, it didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the audience, representing veterans groups, businesses and civic and social organizations which had banded together to meet a community challenge from the Fisher House Foundation to build the St. Louis facility.

Thousands of people -- from all walks of life and from all across the region -- helped raise about $2.2 million toward the construction costs, which were originally estimated at about $5 million, according to Jim Donahoe, president of the local Fisher House board. The foundation paid the balance.

Since 1990, the Fisher House Foundation has built 45 "comfort homes" in the United States and in Europe. The facilities are built at military or VA treatment centers and then donated to the Departments of the Army, Navy, Air Force or VA, which then assume responsibility for maintaining them.

Fernandez stressed the importance of ongoing support from the community. Although the VA pays for staff salaries, utilities, housekeeping and upkeep of the house, it is restricted from buying items often needed by the families: food, clothing, toiletries.

The home's guests often arrive unprepared for a stay because their veteran was hospitalized in an emergency situation or was scheduled for outpatient treatment and developed complications. The St. Louis VA serves patients from throughout Missouri, southern Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas.

Fernandez estimates that the house will need $50,000 to $100,000 a year to provide assistance to families. She credits a growing network of businesses and volunteers who donate goods and services on a regular basis.

On this day, for example, a veterans auxiliary group was coming to cook a Thanksgiving meal for the home's guests, Fernandez said. A member of a local Vietnam veterans group had also stopped by to take pictures of the house to show his fellow members. Another group was planning a Christmas toy drive for children who stay at the home.

'It is Beautiful Here'

McKee said she wanted her son to see the Fisher House before he started his treatment because she wanted him to know what a wonderful place it is.

She said that her son's medical issues started nine years ago when he had an adverse reaction to inoculations he was given before being deployed to Afghanistan. He suffered violent seizures and was temporarily paralyzed. Afterward, he was honorably discharged from the Army for medical reasons.

McKee said that her son was heartbroken.

"He sat on the couch and he said, 'Mama, I'm not supposed to leave my men,' " she said. "Being in the Army was all he ever wanted to do."

McKee said that her son had remarried and was using his veterans benefits to attend college when he began having severe headaches. The diagnosis was devastating: lesions on his brain.

"If I didn't have my faith, I don't know what I'd do," McKee said. "But my son is the strong one. He says, 'I'm in a win-win situation. They're either going to cure me, or I'm going to die and go to heaven.' "

McKee said that it is important for families to be with their veterans at times such as this.

"They need their loved ones," she said. "And this is a relief to them. They don't have to worry about their families."

She is grateful because she feels safe at the Fisher House, and she doesn't worry about leaving her daughter-in-law alone. As a matter of fact, she said, her daughter-in-law had spent the morning watching the river go by.

"It is just so beautiful here and so soothing," she said.

McKee said that the families staying at the house also provide an important support system because they understand and relate to one another.

"Everybody here has a loved one who is ill," she said.

The Fisher House 'Wish List'

Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, Ziploc bags

Baking dishes, serving bowls

Batteries (AA, AAA, C, D)

Disinfectant wipes

Holiday decorations

Individually wrapped toothbrushes

Liquid detergent, fabric softener and bleach for high-efficiency washers

Liquid dish soap and dishwasher detergent

Magazine and newspaper subscriptions

Paper products: plates, towels, napkins, Kleenex and toilet paper

Pens and pencils

Plastic utensils

Printer paper

Restaurant gift cards

Scrap-booking materials

Serving and baking utensils

Stain remover

Stationary, sticky notes and scratch pads

Table linens, placemats

Travel-size toiletries: hand soap, toothpaste and shower gel

To volunteer or to donate cash or supplies, contact manager Rachael Fernandez at 314-894-6145 or Rachael.Fernandez@va.gov.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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