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Two women on a mission:

Editor's Note: Nancy Whalen of Worcester and Carol Lewis of Whitinsville have worked for seven years to establish  the Healing Heart Hospitality House, which will be for  families who have a critically ill relative in a Worcester hospital.  The city has two hospitality houses for families of cancer patients, but none for families of patients seriously ill from other causes.
Here, Nancy Whalen tells the story in her own words.

Who we are

This dream began over 30 years ago.  I was working as a financial counselor at UMass Memorial  Hospital  and pregnant with my first child.  A mother came to my office upset because her son had lost his leg in a motorcycle accident and had no medical insurance.  He was attending a community college in our city and she had to travel two hours each way to visit her son.  She had a mentally challenged daughter that also traveled with her.  We soon became friends as we worked together to obtain disability coverage for her son.  He was hospitalized close to a month.  Her circumstances broke my heart.  She was so grateful for the little help I offered, she bought a gift for my soon to-be-born son.   I’ll never forget her act of kindness.  What could I do to pay it forward?  She planted the seed.    I thought, if only there was a house, a home away from home, for patient’s families and so the dream began.

Fast forward, my son is now 30 years old,  and there are only expensive hotels for patient’s families.   Too many families have faced similar situations over the years.  Recently a woman spent her last savings to travel from Kansas to be with her husband.  He had a heart attack while driving his trailer truck through Massachusetts and was not expected to live.  She was alone in a strange city, no money for a hotel and a dying husband.  Social service employees contacted local hotels on behalf of the woman, but were denied assistance or free rooms.

A child was air lifted from a community hospital when he collapsed at school.  His single mother had to take a leave of absence from her job and travel an hour each way to visit her son in the intensive care unit.  She had no income, but needed to be with her son.   As a Level One Trauma Center, critical patients are brought to the hospital by helicopter from surrounding towns and states.   Their loved ones often follow emotionally, financially and physically unprepared.

I shared my dream with my best friend, Carol Lewis, to own a house for patient’s families providing comfort and support.  Together our dream to establish a hospitality house began to grow.   We’ve faced many obstacles: Carol’s breast cancer, my husband’s throat and prostate cancer, my son’s disabling industrial accident, death of loved ones and a tough economy.  We both feel the experiences have prepared us to help others, even though it has delayed our mission.   The hospital has not been able to help due to budget cuts.

What we are trying to achieve

The dream is not to have a mortgage so we can insure a secure future for the families and to be able to offer low-cost housing.  The house should to be close to the hospitals for easy access.  It would be great to have five bedrooms with extra space for a live-in caretaker.   A large kitchen would be needed so families could cook and store their food and a dining room where they could mingle and support each other.  We also plan to have a quiet room for reflection, prayer and spiritual renewal, along with a play room for children.   It would also need a laundry room. 

The house should have numerous windows to capture the sunlight.  Things always seem better on sunny days. We are located in New England and the warmth of the sun during long winter days is a precious commodity.  In the spring we picture a yard filled with flowers and trees to help sooth hurting emotions.   Everyone we’ve interviewed told us to make sure we have room to expand as there is always a waiting list once the hospitality house is opened.  Most people we’ve talked to think it is a wonderful idea, but financial support has been minimal.  

We are members of Healthcare Hospitality Network.  Their mission is to support homes that help and heal to be more effective in their service to patients and families.  They are a wonderful resources for hospitality houses across the country.  We went to their annual convention at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota a few years ago.  The president of the HHN, a family physician, advised us to think big since there are over 1500 inpatient beds in Worcester.  Boston has over 15 hospitality houses for patients and families. 

When we hope to do it

We’ve worked many years trying to get the support of community.  It is difficult for people to invest in something they cannot see, but we have recently partnered with other organizations to help families now while we fundraise to establish a house.  We recently

received a grant from St. Vincent Fund Healthcare Fund and partnered with Worcester organizations to provide emergency assistance for families.  The need is great, so our efforts to collaborate with area restaurants, hotels and stores is on going.  Most people can relate to how an unexpected medical situation can change a life in only a minute, but until it happens to you, do you know first hand how critical it is to have support.  

Why we are doing it

There are only two hospitality houses in Worcester.  Both are restricted to cancer patients and their families.  The unique service that Healing Heart Hospitality House will provide for patient families is that it will be open to all diagnoses.  The Worcester area has a Level One Trauma Center, Transplant  Program,  Heart and Vascular Center, Joint and Orthopedic, Neo-natal intensive care, Pediatric Specialties, and the College Consortium with more than 30,000 students enrolled.  All of these facilities need the services of a hospitality house.  The economic hardship for patients’ families is tremendous.  Not only there is a patient in the hospital but so many other services are needed for the rest of the family, such as eating out, parking, lodging and just being on top of circumstances of the whole family, who are making crucial decisions in a worried state of mind.

Where we want to have it

Our plan is to target the 4 major hospitals in the Worcester area with the ultimate goal of having a house within a 4-7 mile radius of the hospitals.  The Boston area has about 15 houses or places for patient families to stay and  in the Worcester area there are only two for cancer patients only.  We have been fortunate  to collaborate with Dodge Park Rest Home, The HeartWell Institute and Holiday Inn Express Worcester Downtown.  These are community-focused businesses and organizations that have agreed to collaborate with us to provide services.  We are looking to collaborate with additional businesses.

How we are going to accomplish it

Presently we offer a Caregiver’s monthly support group, graciously hosted at Dodge Park Rest Home.  As members of the Central Massachusetts Visitor’s Bureau we are able to give out promotional materials of this organization including  brochures, maps and lists of events happening in the city.  We have and would be open to receiving more donations to continue producing, what we call, our “Heartfelt Essential Bags”.  These bags are given to patient families to provide some immediate relief with toothbrushes, candy, crackers, discount vouchers, etc.   We are looking to have more discount cards or offers of food and other essentials.

We are recruiting volunteers, a crucial part of our program, to be presenters at our support group, or

 produce /sponsor a “Heartfelt Essential Bag” or to help with technology.  We are thinking that a sorority or graduate student might take us on as a project. Questions can be answered at our website: HealingHeartHouse.org  or  email: Info@healinghearthouse.org, or call us at 774-287-5028.