One of the hardest parts of any hospital stay – whether you’re a patient or their loved one – is being away from home. Home is where we feel comfortable. It’s where we can be ourselves. As life-saving and necessary as hospitals may be, they aren’t the coziest of places.
But the Fisher House in Fayetteville, NC is cozy. It’s a warm and welcoming home away from home for those who serve and sacrifice for our country, while they or their families are undergoing medical treatment. Military and their families can stay there at no cost, for as long as they need.
There are Fisher Houses all over our country, including the one on the Fort Bragg Army base in Fayetteville. It’s within walking distance to Womack Medical Center and its doors have been open for nearly 25 years, serving all branches of the military, stationed all over the world.
Like the Army family stationed in North Carolina because the father was receiving medical treatment at Duke Hospital. Or the soldier whose mom from Louisiana stayed at the Fisher House for months while he underwent cancer treatment. Or the soldier who needed a kidney transplant – his sister was his donor – and their mom stayed at the Fisher House.
Fisher Houses also give refuge to Gold Star Families – those who have lost a loved one through military service – during the heartbreakingly difficult time of attending a memorial service, of gathering belongings.
A Gold Star mom
For years, Lorie Southerland and her husband rode by the Fayetteville Fisher House on their drive to nearby Pope Air Force Base, where both worked for the fire department. They didn’t really pay much attention to it during that daily commute.
She didn’t know back then that taking care of that Fisher House would become her life’s calling.
When Lorie’s son Michael died serving our country in Iraq in 2007, she became involved with American Gold Star Mothers and put her grieving heart into volunteer work.
“When I lost Michael,” she said, “I started volunteering at the Fisher House, then got a job as an operations assistant, and I’ve been the manager for the past three years.”
When she started working there, she didn’t know that things like playing “hide the snake” with a young guest (whose mom was in the hospital) would be part of her job. But she loves it.
“I opened up the refrigerator and that stuffed animal snake was in there. So I took it and put in his bed,” she laughed. “We’ve been playing that for two weeks.”
“What’s nice about this home,” she said, “Is that a lot of the families we will see again because they have ongoing care. We get to watch the children grow. And we become like a close family because everybody is going through the same thing. We all chip in and help each other. We have our days when we are all crying. We have our days when we’re laughing.”
What makes this work so rewarding to Lorie? “When you think about what are your gifts and your talents you can share with others … you don’t have to change the world, you can change one person’s life, and that makes all the difference.”
A family atmosphere
Think about all that it takes to run a household – all of the trips you take to Costco and Target for laundry detergent, Windex, toilet paper, gallons of milk. Add in the occasional appliance repair, furniture replacement, and other maintenance costs. Now imagine that times ten.
It costs about $200,000 a year to keep this Fisher House up and running, and that all comes from donations. (The Army donated the land where the house sits.)
Around 96 cents of every donated dollar stays with the Fisher House Foundation. Since inception, the program and its more than 50 houses have saved military and veterans’ families an estimated $320 million in out-of-pocket costs for lodging and transportation
Lorie said, “I’ve had grown men stand in the hall and cry when they ask ‘How much is it going to cost?’ and I reply ‘Nothing.’ They ask, ‘How long can we stay?’ and I tell them, ‘As long as you need to.’”
The Fayetteville Fisher House has 11 family suites – a twelfth is designated as a playroom. Last year 355 families spent nearly 2,000 nights there. “It’s so nice to have a place that feels and smells like a home,” said one wife whose husband was undergoing treatment. “I can come here and take a shower, have a quick meal, and then get back to the hospital.”
Bethany Hutchinson, a Salisbury, NC resident whose husband is in the National Guard, said, “My husband was in a Humvee accident during training at Fort Bragg. He had a brain hemorrhage and broke his jaw. He’s currently getting treatment from Womack Medical Center. Going through what you go through, the medical treatment, unknowns – being able to stay at a place like this makes it feel like home. You meet so many families going through similar situations and it’s helpful to connect with others and to be an encouragement to others.”
“We have a lot of kids staying here,” said Lorie, who clearly loves that part of her job. “Last year we had 125 children here, while one of their parents was in treatment.”
And there are people of all ages who stay there. Lorie chuckled as she told the story of the tall and masculine Colonel who wanted his mom to stay at the Fisher House while he had a medical procedure. “In walked this sweet little old lady with a walker,” said Lorie. “I don’t care how old you are, you are still somebody’s child. There’s no better medicine than a mama’s love.”
It takes a village
“We couldn’t do this without our volunteers,” Lorie said. “There’s a 19-year-old young woman who comes in every Tuesday afternoon and bakes cookies. We have quilting groups who donate their quilts. Blue Cross NC employees come in once a quarter and cook a meal.”
There are also local elementary school kids that collect change to donate, and children who donate gifts to the kids staying at the Fisher House, instead of receiving birthday gifts. Girl Scouts donate cookies.
One volunteer, Blue Cross NC employee Bridget Johnson, said, “I love helping and cooking, so wherever I can use my skills to let someone enjoy a good meal and relax, I volunteer.
“As a parent with a child in the military, you never know what to expect, so when you come across other families that have a loved one injured in the military, your heart goes out to help lighten that burden for the family.”
“The military can feel forgotten,” said Lorie. “But they can come here and see that America built this for them. This is proof that people care, proof that America loves them.”
Learn More About The Fisher House
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