Pa. to get first Fisher House for relatives visiting soldiers in VA care

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From across the country, families of veterans receiving medical treatment and rehabilitation at the Oakland facility of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System travel here to be near their loved ones.

Next year, those visits will be much less costly and much more convenient with the planned construction of a Fisher House, a "home away from home" for families of patients receiving medical care at major military and Veterans Affairs medical centers. No fee is charged for staying in Fisher Houses, which are constructed by the Maryland-based Fisher House Foundation.

The Pittsburgh Fisher House will be the first in Pennsylvania. Currently, 43 Fisher Houses are located on 18 military installations and at 13 VA medical centers. They are located in 15 states, the District of Columbia and Landstuhl, Germany.

The Pittsburgh facility will include nine suites, each with a double bed or two twin beds, accommodating 18 people a night. The Pittsburgh Fisher House is expected to provide lodging for about 500 people a year, said Cynthia F. Campbell, the community liaison with the Fisher House Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that coordinates private support and encourages public support for the homes.

This is smaller than the original plan for the Fisher House proposed here two years ago. At that time, the foundation was considering a 21-suite house, but revised its plan because the site at the VA facility on Veterans Drive could not accommodate the 16,800-square-foot house.

Groundbreaking is tentatively set for this summer for the 10,000-square-foot house on a parcel that now includes a surface parking lot behind the Veterans Drive facility. The site will have a great view of Downtown and will be less than a five-minute walk to the hospital, said Lisa Fitzsimmons, a social worker there. Construction is expected to take 12 to 18 months.

The average Fisher House stay for families of noncombat patients is about 16 days and for combat casualties it is about 45 to 60 days, Ms. Campbell said.

Like all Fisher Houses, the Pittsburgh home will have a common kitchen, living room with library, dining room, family room and children's play room. And, like other Fisher Houses, the Pittsburgh home will be constructed in the style of local architecture and will be professionally furnished and decorated in the tone and style of the area.

The project is expected to cost $4.7 million to $5 million, with expenditures split evenly between the foundation and local contributions. The foundation will make up any shortfall in local donations, Ms. Campbell said.

Since the first Fisher House opened in 1990 in Portsmouth, Va., more than 120,000 families have stayed for nearly 3 million days in the houses, saving them more than $100 million in lodging costs, in addition to costs for subsistence and transportation, according to the foundation.

Ms. Campbell said the Fisher House Foundation relies on the VA to identify sites where Fisher Houses are needed "and the VA identified Pittsburgh as that place."

The Oakland facility draws veterans from 48 states, Guam and Puerto Rico for specialized treatment at its national, independent liver and renal transplant centers, regional cardiac surgery center, oncology referral center and its Women Veterans Health and Renal Dialysis programs, according to the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

Stays at Fisher Houses are free as well to veterans requiring continuing care but not hospitalization, such as cancer patients who need regular treatments.

Fisher Houses are given to the U.S. government as gifts. After the house is built, the VA will take over maintenance and provide full-time managers to staff it around the clock.

"It's very exciting," Ms. Fitzsimmons said. "It helps the veterans having medical issues because family members won't have to worry about the cost of coming and staying here. Family members shouldn't have to worry about that. This eases the stress and anxiety that comes with dealing with serious medical issues."

Ronald Conley, director of Allegheny County Veterans' Services, said the communal living arrangements among veterans' families experiencing similar situations creates a bond of empathy and mutual support.

"It's comforting to know you are able to talk to people in the same kind of situation you're in," Mr. Conley said. "You give each other moral support that is needed as families deal with the [treatment] of their loved ones."

The Fisher House Foundation was started in 1990 by the late philanthropist Zachary Fisher, a successful New York construction company owner, and his wife, Elizabeth. Mr. Fisher devoted himself to patriotic causes, including leading the 1978 effort to save the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid from being scrapped, turning it into a floating museum on the Hudson River.

Over the years, the couple gave money to military families, set up a college scholarship fund for families of service members and, in 1990, built the first Fisher House.

President Bill Clinton awarded Mr. Fisher the Medal of Freedom in 1998, the country's highest civilian honor. When he died the next year at age 88, 24 Fisher Houses had been built. His wife died in 2004 at age 90.

The VA is prohibited from raising funds toward construction of the Fisher Houses, so the state American Legion is soliciting contributions for the Pittsburgh home along with Mr. Conley, a Vietnam veteran. Mr. Conley said more than $300,000 has been raised.

"When you support a Fisher House, you are directly supporting the troops serving now and the troops who have served in the past as well as their families," Ms. Campbell said.

Donations to the local Fisher House should be sent to Ronald Conley, Allegheny County Veterans Affairs, 4141 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213. Checks should be made out to "Fisher House Foundation" and marked "Pittsburgh Project" so the money will be specifically set aside for the Fisher House here.

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-1968. First Published January 24, 2010 5:15 AM


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