Families Of Ailing Veterans Find Comfort And Joy Year Round At St. Louis Fisher House

By: Mary Delach Leonard
December 15, 2013
St. Louis Public Radio

Wanda Pierson was 500 miles from home on a wintry December morning waiting to visit her son who was undergoing treatment in the spinal cord injury unit at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center.

Pierson, 66, had driven her son, Navy veteran Bradley Remmers, to St. Louis from Blue Rapids, Kan., a week ago and wasn’t sure how much longer he would be in the hospital. She was staying at the Fisher House at Jefferson Barracks, which provides free short-term lodging for the families of veterans who travel more than 50 miles to be treated at the VA’s medical centers in St. Louis.

Pierson was reading a book at her usual table in the dining room, decorated for the holidays by local elementary schoolchildren. Since the Fisher house opened in September 2010, Pierson has considered it her “home away from home” when Remmers, 34, undergoes weeks of medical treatment.

The stately brick colonial house is just steps from the busy medical center, and yet it is a quiet haven, perched at the edge of the Mississippi River bluffs. From the back windows, guests can see the river flowing by below. In addition to 20 bedroom suites, the house has a large communal kitchen and laundry facilities.

“It makes our lives so much easier,’’ said Pierson. “We’ve already got so much going on. We don’t have to worry about where we’re going to stay. Everybody’s here for everybody. I don’t have the pressures that I would have otherwise. I get to be free to help my son.’’

An army of community volunteers assists the Fisher House staff with everything from gardening to cooking. Today was Waffle Wednesday, and a smiling Pat Beidle of Florissant -- known as “The Waffle Lady” -- had arrived at 7:30 a.m. to make breakfast for the guests.

“Who doesn’t like to get up and have their breakfast ready?’’ said Pierson. “She even made me a special waffle with bits of bacon in it.’’

Around noon, Remmers called Pierson to say he was on his way to the Fisher House to have lunch with her. He had a pass from the hospital and was driving his motorized wheelchair across the complex. Remmers is paralyzed from the chest down after a diving accident on a Navy base in 2001.  He goes to a VA center in Topeka, Kan., for outpatient treatment, but St. Louis has the closest inpatient spinal cord unit.

Pierson stood at the front door watching. When she spotted him, she cheerfully called out encouragement: “Come on, Bradley. Hurry! It’s cold out there.’’

Remmers was greeted with welcoming hugs, including one from Karen Poston, assistant house manager.

He said that having his mother at the Fisher House puts his mind at ease because he knows she is safe and has companionship. Before the house opened, she stayed alone in a motel.

“Everybody is going through something here,’’ Remmers said. “Everybody’s got something they can relate to. She’s around other people she can share with but who can also comfort her, as well. It goes both ways. You might make a friend for a week or you might make a friend for life.”

Remmers grinned and lowered his voice.

“Not to sound like a mama’s boy, but it is nice to see mom,’’ he said. “When I’m here in a hospital environment -- and in my condition I’m at the mercy of everyone else’s hands and time -- it’s nice to see a little face from home.”

Services To Expand In January

Since its opening, 2,800 guests have stayed at the house, saving an estimated $2.7 million in food and lodging costs, said Jim Donahoe, president of the St. Louis Fisher House Foundation.

The house serves both Jefferson Barracks and the John Cochran medical center and operates a shuttle service for families who need to get back and forth. Families of veterans referred by the VA to other St. Louis medical facilities can also stay at the house.

The average stay is about 17 days; the longest stay was 9 ½ months. Guests have come from as far as Alaska, Hawaii and the Philippines.

Donahoe said the Fisher House’s admissions policy is expanding. The house currently accepts families who live at least 50 miles from the VA and are staying at least three days. In January, the house will be open for shorter stays, including overnight visits, though the 50-mile requirement will remain.  

The change will accommodate veterans coming for one-day outpatient services, such as colonoscopies or minor surgeries. Some of these veterans have to leave home in the wee hours of the morning to arrive at the hospital for their procedures. And then they drive back home afterward.

“That’s not safe, and it’s not good service,’’ Donahoe said.

Should the house be full, the Fisher House will pay for one night’s lodging at a nearby hotel.

Donahoe said the expanded service is possible due to the ongoing commitment of the community. That includes donations from individuals and businesses and also grass-roots fundraising that runs the gamut from barbecues and trivia nights to poker runs and golf tournaments.

Thousands of people -- from all walks of life and from all across the region -- helped raise about $2.2 million to build the house, about half of the construction costs. The national Fisher House Foundation paid the balance.

The motto for the Fisher House is “Because a family’s love is good medicine.’’ Since 1990, the national foundation has built 62 "comfort homes" -- similar in concept to Ronald McDonald Houses -- on 23 military installations and 23 VA medical centers. Once the homes are built and furnished, the foundation donates them to the Departments of the Army, Navy, Air Force or VA, which then assume responsibility for maintaining them and paying staff salaries.

“Under the law, the VA can spend any amount of money for a veteran, but they can’t spend anything for nonveterans,’’ Donahoe said.

That’s where the volunteers take over, providing the food, toiletries and even paper products used by the houses.

Remmers is so impressed with the Fisher House he’d like to see one built at every military or VA hospital. And he is touched by the generosity of the volunteers.

“They are good people,’’ Remmers said. “They are the wheels that keep this place turning. It’s amazing, but it’s also humbling. You want to thank every person who has a hand in the pot to help out.’’

 “We Are A Community Of Givers”

Poston has worked at the Fisher House since it opened and helps coordinate the volunteers.

Regulars include cooks for Taco Tuesdays and Fried Rice Fridays and others who drop off snacks and homemade cookies. Veterans groups, service groups, church groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts take shifts at the house performing all sorts of tasks, from providing meals to organizing the kitchen and storage area.  Children from nearby Beasley Elementary decorate the house for every season. A group called the Happy Hookers crochets lap quilts for the guests.

“We are a community of givers,’’ Poston said. “And I feel like everyone’s hearts are going out to the veterans and their families. It’s not just about the veteran being away from the family, but the families being able to endure that stay away from home. You get all people from all nationalities and they come in and say, ‘What can I do?’ That’s a wonderful thing.”

Beidle, 63, said that she and a good friend began cooking waffles at the house last summer after they both retired.

“We knew we wanted to do some volunteering,’’ she said. “My husband is retired military; she has a nephew who is military. I had never heard of the Fisher House. Now, I tell everybody about it. I have a pin that I wear, ‘Ask me about the Fisher House.’ ''

Beidle said it her way of giving back to the community.

“I wanted to do something for our country,’’ she said. “I can’t be in the military. This is something I can do to help someone in the military.’’

Poston said it is important to keep spreading the word that the Fisher House exists. Though the house has been open for three years, there are still families who are unaware of it. Occasionally, she hears from VA security personnel who have discovered out-of-town family members who can’t afford lodging.

“Unfortunately, we still have people sleeping in cars,’’ she said.

Poston said the home is open to any family member of a veteran.

“We do not ask you about your income. The only thing we want to know is that you have a patient at the hospital and that you live 50 miles away. We want to ensure that everyone has a safe environment,’’ she said.

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