By Chris Vaughn
When Michael Taylor and Debra Kaminski dropped everything recently to fly to Dallas for their father's medical emergency, they had one less worry once they got to the VA Medical Center.
They had a free place to stay for as long as they wanted it.
The first Fisher House in Dallas-Fort Worth opened in mid-February, affording veterans and their families first-class lodging on hospital property in south Dallas.
The $6 million, 21-bedroom Fisher House is the 11th in Texas but only the second at a Veterans Affairs facility.
"It's peace of mind to know that you're in the same complex as the hospital, so that, heaven forbid, something happen, you're only a few minutes away," said Kaminski, who lives outside Pittsburgh.
The 478-bed Dallas VA hospital, set in what is now a less-than-desirable neighborhood, has wanted a Fisher House for several years because families had to spend hundreds of dollars on hotels and considerable time and frustration commuting from north of downtown.
The nonprofit Maryland-based Fisher House Foundation approved the request in 2007. Half the money for its construction came from donors in North Texas and Oklahoma, including Boone Pickens, the Bass family and the Meadows Foundation.
Although the Fisher House Foundation built it, the 16,800-square-foot house belongs to the VA to staff and operate.
"By not having to worry about a place to stay, the families can focus on their loved one," said Jennifer Purdy, assistant director of outpatient services for the VA. "This house gives them all the comforts of home, right next to the hospital."
Fisher Houses are well-known to those in the military because they have been on many major installations since the 1990s, including Fort Hood in Killeen, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and Fort Bliss in El Paso.
But in the last few years, the Fisher Foundation has been on a building campaign at major VA hospitals.
"The big shift came as a result of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Jim Weiskopf, vice president of communications for the foundation. "It was a realization because of the signature wounds of our involvement and the blast injuries -- amputations, burns, traumatic brain injury and PTSD. The rehabilitation from those injuries is done largely by the VA."
The house, built on what used to be a baseball field on the eastern end of the VA complex, has a family room with games, books and DVDs; a laundry room; a communal dining room; and a huge kitchen with three Sub-Zero refrigerators and private lockers for each family's stash of nonperishables.
The Cracker Barrel restaurant chain donated rockers for the front porch; the Viking Range Corp. is donating a large outdoor grill; and Raytheon Co. donated two golf carts to take people to the hospital if they don't walk very well.
Many of the needs of the Fisher House are met by veterans' organizations and civic groups. Women from throughout the region made quilts for the bedrooms.
While the Fisher Houses were designed for young veterans, the families of older veterans benefit, too, as the children of World War II veteran Norman Taylor can attest.
"I've stayed in high-dollar hotels that aren't as nice as this place," said Michael Taylor, who lives in Tampa, Fla. "It's been a blessing to us."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski