Haven for families of the injured

SUN JOURNAL

Comfort: Fisher Houses in D.C. and Bethesda provide lodging and a sense of community for relatives of severely wounded military personnel.

July 25, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Deanna Schwartz speaks calmly when she recalls the words that turned her life upside down.

Mom, we got hit.

It was Mother's Day - May 29 - when her 21-year-old son, Spc. Dean Schwartz, called from a hospital in Kuwait to say his unit had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade outside of Mosul, Iraq, which blew apart his left leg and caused one of his lungs to collapse.

Moments after Deanna Schwartz hung up the phone, she and her husband packed their bags, left their home in Keysville, Va., and drove directly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. But in their race to reach their son's bedside, the Schwartzes had no time to plan for what promised to be a lengthy - and expensive - stay.

Fortunately for the Schwartzes - and for more than 1,200 other families of severely wounded military personnel - the answer came in a phone call from a Rockville-based nonprofit program: the Fisher House.

Begun in 1990 by philanthropist Zachary Fisher, a New York real estate magnate, and his wife, Elizabeth, the program operates 32 houses on 23 military medical bases across the country and in Germany. For $10 a night, the Fisher Houses offer families what its founders called a "home away from home" - lodging in a cozy, two-story Colonial next to the hospital.

For more than a decade, the program operated in a peacetime environment, its houses filled mostly with elderly veterans. Then, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Fisher House shifted gears. Waiving its $10 nightly rate for the families of military personnel wounded there and in Afghanistan, the staff began working overtime to accommodate the relatives of a steadily growing number of wounded troops.

Currently, the Department of Defense estimates that number at nearly 6,000. Arriving almost daily at Andrews Air Force Base in Bethesda, many of these young men and women are taken directly to one of two area hospitals: Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center.

`Close-knit group'

The six Fisher Houses adjacent to the two hospitals are crowded with the parents, spouses and young children of the wounded. Together, these families form a makeshift community - one that bonds over the daily triumphs and struggles of battlefield casualties.

"We're a very close-knit group," said Deanna Schwartz, sipping coffee on a recent morning with several other families on the back patio of one of the Walter Reed houses. "We get together and talk, or share information on healing techniques or filling out paperwork."

They cook, take walks, watch movies - even do laundry together. They swap status reports, compare the injuries sustained in small-arms fire to those from remote-controlled mines and "IEDs" (improvised explosive devices). On the bad days, they wish each other well.

The families say this type of atmosphere eases the daily stresses of their stay.

"Being here is incredible - everyone just takes your worries away," said Schwartz, who has been her son's sole family support since her husband, Edward, had to return to his job with UPS.

Befriending other guests

In her husband's absence, Deanna Schwartz has befriended other guests at the house over meals and coffee breaks. One of them is Chris Sawyers, whose husband, Gary, was critically injured by gunfire while serving with the National Guard in Iraq.

"I had no clue that a program like this existed at first, and thought I'd have to do this all on my own," Sawyers said.

Instead, she and her two sons - ages 8 and 10 - have been staying at one of the Walter Reed Fisher Houses since April 25, supporting her husband through more than a dozen surgeries. While her boys play with other Fisher House children on a playground in the back yard, Sawyers travels to and from the hospital.

In addition to helping with child care, shopping, hospital arrangements and paperwork, the Fisher Houses offer their guests complimentary meals, most of them donated by outside organizations, and small indulgences such as weekly massages and tours of downtown Washington.

Reduces stress

By waiving its $10 nightly rate, the program has saved families what it estimates to be $7 million a year.

"To have these folks pick up the tab has taken so much of the stress off of us," said Stephan Howell, who is staying at one of the National Naval Medical Center Fisher Houses to support his son, Pfc. Dustin Howell, a 21-year-old Marine recovering from a land-mine accident in Iraq. "It makes things so much easier for folks in our circumstances."

Howell and his wife, Brenda, had to take leave from their jobs at a baby formula factory in Waylaid, Mich., to be with their son, who was in a coma for several weeks after he was admitted May 30.

The Howells still blanch when they describe his wounds. The explosion flayed their son's arms and legs, shattered his kneecap and blinded him in both eyes. At Fisher House, the Howells found comfort in conversations with parents of other young soldiers who had suffered severe blast wounds.

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