When Raymond Bencak came to John Hopkins Hospital for treatment of leukemia in 1989, he and his wife, Eleanor, spent the first week in a hotel room. It was a comfortless place to face the prospect of grueling treatment and possible death.
So they jumped at the chance to move to Hope Lodge, a haven for cancer patients and their families on West Lexington Street. For more than three months, while Mr. Bencak underwent a bone marrow transplant and extensive follow-up treatment, he and his wife lived with others who were dealing with the ravages of disease and the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
"It was like one big family," said Mr. Bencak, 55, a retired manager for United Parcel Service. "You weren't alone in a hotel room, staring at those four walls."
So the Bencaks drove down from Lancaster, Pa., yesterday to join more than 100 cancer survivors and relatives for Hope
Lodge's first reunion. For a few hours, they renewed friendships once forged in weeks of shared suffering, celebrated victories over disease and remembered those who had succumbed to the common medical enemy.
The reunion drew people from as far away as Massachusetts to '' the spacious brick building on the site of the old Koester bakery, a short walk from Lexington Market. The event was sponsored by the Arlene Rosenbloom Wyman Guild, named for a 22-year-old Baltimore woman who died of leukemia in 1973. The guild's 200 volunteer members raise money to provide comfort and support to cancer patients at area hospitals.
More than 3,000 patients have stayed at Hope Lodge since it opened in 1987, paid for by $1.8 million in donations to the Maryland division of the American Cancer Society. Residents of the 26 rooms are charged nothing, but many make donations toward the $187,000 annual cost of operating the lodge.
Its backbone is the couple who reside on the second floor: Jude Harrison, the director, a former registered nurse and paralegal; and her husband, Ed Harrison, a full-time volunteer who is in charge of maintenance and much else. They arrived from New Hampshire as clients in 1987 when Ed was being treated for a recurrence of lymphoma. When the former director resigned, the Harrisons moved in and took charge.
"We've seen both sides -- Jude as a spouse and I as a patient," said Mr. Harrison, 41. "We can say to people, 'We know what you're going through.' It's nothing to have someone knock on the door at 11 or 12 at night and just want to talk."
When a deejay hired for yesterday's occasion started a game of "Name That Tune," Mona Martin, 34, of Aiken, S.C., grabbed her old friend Stacy Dabney, 27, of Philadelphia, to form a team for a game.
They share a lot more than just a knack for recognizing cartoon theme songs and '50s doo-wop hits. Both had bone marrow transplants for leukemia in 1988, and doctors consider both cured today.
"It's exciting to see Stacy. But it's sad to see who's not here," said Ms. Martin, who is retired on disability from her job operating a nuclear reactor at Du Pont's Savannah River Plant.
Her mother, Betty Martin, said Hope Lodge helped her get through her daughter's treatment.
"When the van [from the hospitals] came in each night, it was, 'OK, how are things?' You got a chance to vent," she said. Since 1988, they have visited and telephoned often to check on other patients.
The camaraderie seems a strong shield against gloom. When Geraldine Jones was referred to Hope Lodge in 1987 after her breast cancer was discovered to have spread to her bones, she was wary, she recalled yesterday.
"I hesitated to come and be with all these people who are dying," she said. But as she underwent radiation at Johns Hopkins, she found Hope Lodge a surprisingly cheerful refuge, where patients and relatives shared meals, strolled together to Lexington Market and rode the lodge van to malls for Christmas shopping.
"There was not one moment of depression in this place," she said, "because there was such sharing."