Fisher House of Gainesville offers respite to caretakers of sick veterans

Helen and Charlie Klingler married Jun. 6, 1970. This year, they will celebrate their 53rd anniversary. “Don’t we look different from our wedding picture?” Helen asked.

Helen Klingler of Summerfield slept in a chair in her husband’s Veterans Affairs hospital room in Gainesville for about a week at the end of 2022. In speaking with his nurses and doctors, she learned about the Fisher House, a 20-room home for the caregivers of sick veterans.

Now, she stays just steps away from the front doors of the hospital during her husband’s care.

“I came down here and it was so wonderful because I could take a shower,” Klingler said, “and have a bed to sleep in.”

She and her husband Charlie, a veteran who drove supply lines during the Vietnam War, will celebrate 53 years of marriage together this June. Charlie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma and his current treatment involves five-day hospital stays every 21 days with three days of chemotherapy. Klingler stays in the Fisher House as a “home away from home” during those inpatient weeks.

“It’s a blessing for me,” Klingler said.

The house, which the Fisher House Foundation donated in 2014 to the VA, keeps people in Klingler’s situation from spending hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms or leaving a loved one alone during their care. Everything — down to the silverware — that the VA needed to operate the house was donated, said Clay Perdue, who previously worked as the manager of the program. There are just under 100 Fisher Houses across the world today, and more are on the way.

The house serves the largest VA health care system in the country; the Malcom Randall Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center is just one hospital that serves North Florida and South Georgia. According to the VA government website, the circuit of outpatient clinics and hospitals served about 177,000 veterans and provided 1.9 million outpatient visits in 2021.

Veterans make up about 6.4% of the U.S. adult population, or about one in 15 people, according to 2021 census data. In Florida, veterans make up about 7.7% of the adult population.

The Fisher House provides something else to those who stay there free of charge; it provides a community to connect with other veteran families who are caring for an ill family member.

“You think your situation is bad until you talk to other people,” Klingler said. “Sometimes I’m in the kitchen and they come in and they just collapse. But we’re here to support one another.”

The Fisher House provides a journal for each room; guests are welcomed to tell their stories and their stay. Klingler shared one entry from her current room’s journal with which she identified:

About the Fisher House, It’s a beautiful oasis for those of us traveling a hard path. It really helps not to be alone and have such a comfortable home to come back to at night.

“And that’s exactly how I feel,” Klingler said. “And I think everybody that’s stayed here would say the same thing.”

The Fisher House in Gainesville is run by VA employees, many of them retired veterans, which helps to build that sense of community in challenging times.

Kimo Ortiz, the acting manager, said he was making more money working overseas in 2015 as a training manager, but the experience is nothing compared to what he does now at the Fisher House.

“It’s like an extended family,” he said.

The family also includes volunteers like Carol Bosworth, who spends time baking cookies in the kitchen for their guests.

“I don’t know how long I’ll need them, but I know that they’re just a phone call away,” Klingler said.