AARP Eye Center
By Holly Fisher
Several years ago, Donnell Baker and her husband, Medal of Honor recipient John F. Baker Jr., traveled to the VA Medical Center in Charleston. The Vietnam veteran needed a medical test.
The Columbia couple planned to stay overnight, but John Baker had a reaction to the dye used in the test and had to stay in the hospital for a couple of extra days. Then he got pneumonia, and that one-night stay turned into 30 nights and a $3,000 hotel bill.
Donnell Baker realized that many families don’t have the money for a lengthy hotel stay while a loved one receives medical care.
It’s one reason she is helping to raise funds to build a Fisher House at the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia. It will be a “home away from home” for veterans and active-duty service members (and their families) while they receive treatment at Dorn—which serves two-thirds of the state’s veteran population.
The 74 Fisher Houses nationwide provide free lodging so families can help their loved ones through a difficult medical time without worrying about mounting hotel bills. The houses are named for philanthropists Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, who launched the project in 1990.
Baker, 75, whose husband died in 2012, continues to volunteer at the Dorn center. When Tammy Finney, voluntary service chief at Dorn, mentioned her desire to have a Fisher House, Baker said, “Let’s do it.” They and others went on to found Friends of Fisher House Columbia.
Engaging the community
Baker said she and her husband were always together. He wanted her by his side during recovery.
“That’s how I know how much family helps the patient by being there,” she said. “You go into the hospital and you’re in a strange bed; strange people are coming in and poking you; there’s strange food and green Jell-O. It’s good to have the security of your family there.”
In 2016 the VA identified the Dorn center as a priority for a house, and Fisher House Foundation approved the request. Now, the Friends of Fisher House committee is raising funds to build the house. Members hope construction can start in late 2020 or 2021.
The goal is for the community to raise as much of the cost as possible, with the foundation covering the rest, explained Jennifer Koget, national program manager for the Fisher House temporary lodging program at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Most houses cost $6.5 million to $8 million.
“We want the community to be engaged to make the house their house,” she said. “We want the community to have a stake in that.”
Located on the Dorn campus, the house could be similar to one that opened in Charleston earlier this year, with 16 suites.
Easing the financial burden on a family is not the only goal of the program. The houses help families in like situations connect with one another.
“It’s important to note Fisher House families share a lot of similar experiences,” Koget said. “They form a peer support network. Many times, that extends beyond when the family leaves. It’s magical to see that happen.”
Donations to the Columbia Fisher House project can be made at https://engage.fisherhouse.org/site/Donation2?df_id=2420&2420.donation=form1&mfc_pref=T or by mail to Friends of Fisher House, P.O. Box 290185, Columbia, SC 29229.
Holly Fisher is a writer living in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.