By Carolyn Soucy
It didn't take long for word of the opening of the new Miami VA Healthcare System Fisher House to spread. Two families were ready to check in when the 15,000 square foot "comfort home" opened for guests on , September 13. Within the first two weeks, six more families of Veterans hospitalized at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center had found their way to the Fisher House.
These Fisher House "first families" are unique, yet very similar. All guests staying at the Fisher House must be the family members or caregivers of a hospitalized patient and live 50 miles or more from the Medical Center. These first families have come from as far as New York and Indiana and from as close as Boynton Beach and the Keys. They are spouses, fiancés, siblings, children and grandchildren. Some guests plan their stays at the Fisher House and others come because they have no other option. Whoever they are, wherever they are from, and whatever reason they are here, the first Fisher House families all share a common experience – concern for their loved one who is hospitalized.
It was family members' desire to be close to their hospitalized loved ones that first inspired Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher to begin building Fisher Houses on military bases and VA medical centers for the family members of hospitalized active duty service members l and Veterans. The first Fisher House was built in 1991 at the National Navel Medical Center in Bethesda, MD and 19 years later, the Miami VAHS Fisher House is the 48th Fisher House and the 17th on a VA medical center campus.
With 20 private guest suites, the Miami VAHS Fisher House, located on the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center campus, can accommodate up to 20 families. Guests share the common kitchen, dining room, living room and TV room. Other amenities such as laundry facilities, wireless internet, satellite TV, TVs and DVD players in every room, a donated library and dedicated parking help make this home away from home more comfortable for guests. And most importantly, guests can stay at no cost for as long as their loved one is hospitalized.
The large Fisher House kitchen has already become the heart of this beautiful home. Guests are encouraged to bring their own food and prepare their own meals, which often leads to guests sharing meals and stories. During the first weekend the Fisher House was open, one family prepared a large Sunday dinner and invited all the other guests to join them. Most mornings, guests are found discussing their loved ones over coffee. Evenings bring guests together again to go over the day's events and find comfort in their shared experiences. This sense of community is what makes the Fisher House so special. Fisher House guests can take comfort in knowing they are not alone.
Staying at the Fisher House brings a sense of relief to the guests. Before the Fisher House opened, one Veteran's spouse slept in the recliner in the Veteran's room and his children traveled from West Palm daily. After two months of sleeping in the Veteran's room, his wife was finally able to enjoy a good night's sleep. "When I tell you that words can't express how blessed I feel to be here you better believe it," this spouse commented during her first days at the Fisher House. Now she and her children have a comfortable place to return to each night and still be a quick walk away from the Veteran.
Without the Fisher House, some family members may not be able to afford a long visit during a Veteran's hospitalization. The first Fisher House guest was a Veteran's daughter from New York who had been sleeping on friends' couches because she didn't t have the money for three weeks in a hotel. "I came here with $300 in my pocket-that's all," she said. "This place saved me." Having felt depressed about not having his family near, the Veteran said he felt "terrific" that his daughter was able to be so close to him.
While many guests plan to stay in the Fisher House during a scheduled hospitalization, the Fisher House is available for last minute arrivals as well. One Veteran's son traveled from Indiana when his 91 year old father was transferred from the West Palm Beach VA Hospital for an unexpected illness. He had not had time to make plans for a hotel when a staff member suggested the Fisher House. When the Veteran's condition worsened, several other family members arrived to be with the Veteran. "The Veteran's son was considering having his children sleep in the car. He didn't know they could stay here as well," said Fisher House manager Carolyn Soucy. "I could see the relief on his face when he realized his family would be taken care of. Families shouldn't have to worry about where to stay when their loved one is ill. This is the mission of the Fisher House."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski