Then-Senior Airman Candice Metulski was a single mother and full-time student when she sustained serious injuries in a car accident and faced medical retirement. Driving more than five hours from her home in Morgantown, W. Va., to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for her temporary disability retirement list evaluation quickly became physically and financially impossible for her sustain, and she decided to look for temporary lodging on or near the base. Her search led her to the Fisher House.
The Fisher House program, established by philanthropists Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, provides comfort homes at bases where there is a major military medical facility. These houses are places where family members of wounded, ill or injured service members can stay, free of charge, while their loved ones are receiving medical treatment on base. The houses are open to all branches of service, on active-duty, retired, Guard or Reserve status.
Unlike a hotel, each room in the Fisher House is different and is the guest’s own personal space. Just like at Mom’s house, they are responsible for keeping the room clean. At the Fisher House II, each room has a TV and laptop computer, but there is also a family room, shared kitchen and dining room where guests can come together.
“If you’re staying at a hotel, nobody is going to notice if you don’t come out of your room,” said Karen Healea, the Fisher House I and II manager at Wright-Patterson AFB. “They’re not going to notice if you’re pretty much just staying to yourself. But here, we try to touch base with somebody every single day.”
Fisher Houses also have become homes-away-from-home for service members as they go through out-patient treatments. While staying at the Fisher House, service members can have a comfortable place to return to after a long day of chemotherapy, while recovering from refractive eye surgery, or following a series of doctor appointments during evaluation for temporary disability retirement.
“This is like walking into a house where there are other people around you who know what you’re going through, rather than going back to a cold hotel room where there might be somebody at the front desk,” Metulski said. “They don’t know what it’s like to be injured, and they don’t know what it’s like to go from one clinic to another. Everybody in this house is here for medical reasons. Some of us are retired, some of us are having surgery, but nobody is looking at you odd because you’re carrying a cane or wearing sunglasses because you just had eye surgery. They’re not staring at you, and they don’t think less of you.”
The newest Fisher House II at Wright-Patterson AFB was designed specifically with patient guests in mind. The house is one story and is fully accessible. These features are a necessity in giving independence to guests who are physically disabled or fatigued from treatments like chemotherapy or dialysis.
“Sometimes (guests) come directly from the hospital after they’ve been diagnosed with cancer,” Healea said. “ It could be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour by time they get over here, and they haven’t had a lot of time to adjust to the diagnosis, let alone that they’re going to have to be here while they receive chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. “
Independence is the goal, but there are always staff members at the house to help with non-medical issues when the guests need it.
“It’s difficult for me to go up and down stairs,” Metulski said. “I’ve been in hotels, or I’ve gotten into military lodging and they don’t have an elevator. (I’m) looking down at my cane thinking, ‘Could you help me?’ I don’t feel bad about asking for help here.
“It’s very important in healing to have that support and that camaraderie,” she said. “I think the best thing you can do for somebody when they’re in pain is to let them know they are not alone.”
Healea said her goal, for herself and her staff, is to make sure guests’ transition to the Fisher House is as easy and comfortable as possible.
She remembers a family that arrived at the Fisher House to be near a family member at the hospital on base. By the time they reached the base, they needed to get to the intensive care unit immediately. Because children aren’t allowed in the ICU, they didn’t know where to leave their 7-year-old son.
“The mom was apologizing because she didn’t know what to do with the young man and didn’t even know if she’d brought stuff for him,” Healea said. “He had a book bag with him, and she had no idea what he packed. She said, ‘I don’t even know if he has pajamas with him or anything.’ And on that note he opened his book bag and dumped it on the floor. Out came his Batman pajamas, his Spiderman underwear and his video game. He had a few of his other valuables, including his teddy bear, jam-packed into this book bag. We reassured the parents he could stay here so they could get to the hospital.”
Sometimes people don’t have a last-minute game plan, so it’s comforting when they don’t have to endure the anxiety of wondering where they’re going to stay or if they will be able to get the things they need, Healea said.
Anxiety comes with the territory, Metulski said, but staying at the Fisher House has given her the peace of mind and the support system she needed during her temporary disability retirement list evaluation and through appeal to regain active-duty status in the Air Force she loves so much. At the end of the day, her Fisher House family has been there to help her decompress.
“It’s the principle of a family working together and supporting each other,” Metulski said. “What makes a house a home? It’s your family helping you out. Here the family is the other Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. We’re all going through similar medical situations. The staff makes it feel like a home, being there to support you and letting you know they’re here. That’s what makes a home, knowing you have that family around, whether it’s the family you brought with you or the family you find here.”