By Michael Wallace
More than a year had passed since Virginia Miller last saw her father, a Vietnam veteran undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer.
When she learned that Frederick Miller had slipped deeper into depression at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in Miami, where he was being treated, she packed some clothes, gathered every penny she had and traveled from New York to South Florida.
She ended up at the Fisher House, a 20-suite residential complex that provides free temporary lodging to relatives of VA Medical Center patients.
``I came here with $300 in my pocket -- that's all,'' said Virginia Miller. ``That's not even enough for a decent hotel. But I've been here with him now for three weeks. This place saved me.''
The Fisher House opened last week and is already becoming a home away from home for out-of-town family members who had few options beyond sleeping in uncomfortable chairs in hospital rooms or doling out hundreds of dollars a night at nearby hotels.
The Miami Fisher House cost about $7 million to build and furnish. Most of that amount came from the Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit organization based near Washington, D.C. that has built 47 homes since 1990.
A local fundraising drive, including contribution from the Miami-Dade County Commission netted nearly $2 million.
In March, President Barack Obama donated $250,000 of his $1.4 Nobel Peace Prize award to the Fisher House Foundation.
The Miami facility is the first to open in South Florida, one of four in the state.
Not all went smoothly during construction. Some hospital staffers grumbled because the site was built on land that had been a primary parking area.
Many employees must now park farther away or take public transportation.
``Every VA hospital has parking issues,'' said Cindy Campbell, vice president of community affairs for Fisher House Foundation.
``You don't have a lot of space to work with. Whatever those sorts of issues are, we find a way to make it work.''
Virginia Miller was one of the first residents to check in when the Fisher House opened last week. Four other families arrived by the weekend, including one from Indiana.
Before the home opened, Rosie Coleman, 59, had to commute from West Palm Beach on Tri-Rail and Metro Mover to visit her husband.
Robert Coleman, a 62-year-old Vietnam vet has been hospitalized in Miami since April. He is now paralyzed after an infection worsened his multiple sclerosis.
Rosie Coleman and her seven children -- some traveling from Georgia and Arkansas -- would rotate two or three-day visits to the hospital, which meant plenty of uncomfortable nights sleeping in a recliner in Robert Coleman's room.
That changed Wednesday, when the Colemans were cleared to move into a Fisher House suite, which includes a private bathroom, linens, dressers and chairs.
``We were going to be there for my husband if there was a Fisher House or not, because we always have,'' Rosie Coleman said. ``When I tell you that words can't express how blessed I feel to be here, you better believe it. When all you have to do to stay is follow the rules, what more can you ask for? [Robert's] at peace, because he knows we're comfortable.''
The VA asked Lettie Bien, who served 30 years in the Army Reserves and once headed the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, to organize local efforts to launch the project.
She got county taxpayers, local nonprofit organizations, veterans groups, private donors and congressional delegations to contribute. Her efforts generated donations totaling $1.85 million.
Bien aims to meet the initial goal of raising $2 million locally for the facility.
``This is something all of Miami can be proud of, because every one of us is in on this,'' Bien said. ``The mission was to get it done. There's a bunch more we can do to make this house a home.''
A plate of freshly baked cookies sat beckoning on a countertop in the kitchen, with its multiple stoves and ovens. The Coleman family was planning to cook a seafood feast on Sunday for everyone staying in the home.
A nice perk awaited in the TV room.
``Someone donated the NFL package,'' house manager Carolyn Soucy said. Now, visitors can channel surf every game played on Sundays.
``It's been amazing to bring this facility to life. You can actually see the stress on these family members when they first come in. And you can physically see the relief the next day, after they've spent the night here.''
``I was in the dumps before they came,'' Frederick Miller said of his relatives as he spoke through a mechanical larynx. ``I can be a very stubborn man. But I've been terrific since they walked through the door.''
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski