Maria Gresham started crying when Hines VA medical staff said her Army Veteran husband Marshall needed a knee replacement.
That’s where Fisher House comes in. Hines VA’s Fisher House opened on March 1, 2010, at the hospital’s main campus and is part of the non-profit Fisher House Foundation which maintains hotel-like properties at VA medical centers and military bases nationwide for families who live far from their medical care.
Maria stayed at the Hines VA Fisher House for 45 days while Marshall recovered from the surgery.
“We live in Michigan and I asked, ‘Are there any cheap hotels around here? Could I stay in his room?’ We couldn’t afford for me to stay in a nice hotel for that long. But then the nurse asked if we ever heard of Fisher House,” Gresham said.
The Greshams have now stayed many times since their first visit for additional care.
The 15,000-square-foot Hines building has 20 guest rooms, a kitchen and dining area, communal spaces, and an outdoor patio. Like the Greshams, Veterans and their families stay at all Fisher Houses for free, said Holly Wright, who has managed the Hines location since its opening.
But after 13 years and helping hundreds of Veterans and families, the Hines VA Fisher House has become something more than free lodging.
“It’s a home,” said Wright, who also explained that guests stay at the Hines VA Fisher House multiple times over years of treatment. When that happens, staff and volunteers quickly become part of their lives. For Wright, among the most memorable guests were Ernest and Pearl Clark.
Ernest was a Vietnam Veteran from Rockford, Illinois, who first came to Fisher House with his wife Pearl in 2012 to receive treatment for complications to Agent Orange exposure. The Clarks often stayed for treatment until Ernest entered hospice at Hines shortly before his passing in 2018.
“He was in the Hines Community Living Center for hospice in the end. When they would let him, Ernest would come over. We’d sit outside and have lunch together,” Wright recalled. “No one comes here one time. And we hope that everyone leaves better, but it’s not always the case. It’s like losing a family member.”
Soon after Ernest’s passing, Pearl died of cancer. She kept her diagnosis secret to focus on her husband’s care.
“It’s heartbreaking that Ernest and Pearl are both gone,” said Maria Gresham, who became friends with the couple during their shared stays. “But Fisher House brought us all together and, for that, I will always be grateful,” Marshall added.
Santa, also a minister, weds couple
However, for every sad moment, there are joyful memories, too, including an impromptu Christmas Eve wedding with Santa Claus.
According to Wright, Ken and Pam Ewing stayed at Fisher House in late-2018. The couple received their marriage license but couldn’t find a place to hold a ceremony.
On Christmas Eve 2018, Fisher House held its annual holiday celebration, complete with Marine Veteran and volunteer Frank Faruggia dressed as Santa Claus. When Old Saint Nick learned of the couple’s situation, he let them know he was an ordained minister.
“They got married by Santa on Christmas Eve,” Holly exclaimed. “I even cut some poinsettia branches and made a bouquet for her.”
‘It’s like everyone becomes family.”
The Gresham, Clark and Ewing families came to Fisher House hoping for a comfortable and affordable place to stay while receiving health care, but like many other guests, they found something more.
“Fisher House is a good place and there aren’t many places like that anymore,” said Marshall. “You get there and it’s like everyone becomes family. We’re more than friends. We call each other on the phone and see how you’re doing. It’s so much more than what you’d expect.”
“You feel like you’re home,” Maria said. “Because you are home.”