By Howard Altman
Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano wheels up to the front door of the two-story building on the bustling campus of the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital with a smile on his face.
Despite being paralyzed after falling off the back of a truck during a firefight in southern Afghanistan, despite the surgeries and the pain and the complete upheaval of his life, Tuimalealiifano, 31, is beaming as he arrives here at the Fisher House after a rigorous day of rehabilitation.
So is his wife, Shannon.
Fisher House, with its comfortable, handicapped-accessible suites, cozy public areas and, especially, a spacious, fully equipped kitchen, has made a tremendous difference in the Special Operations sergeant's recovery, the couple says.
"There are really no words for it," says Shannon, 34, who first came here a day before this Fisher House opened in August 2007. "There are no words for how wonderful it is to be so close to my husband, in such a wonderful place."
Though she is smiling now, Shannon Tuimalealiifano remembers the dark days.
Her husband, who jumped out of helicopters and off cliffs for a living, was unable to move and forced to undergo excruciating surgeries. They had no idea what the future held, whether he would ever recover or how they would be able to afford a roof over their heads and food for their three children.
She was an emotional mess.
He was battling depression.
But Fisher House – one of 43 around the nation and one of only four associated with a polytrauma facility like Haley – helped the Tuimalealiifanos overcome all that. Just like it does the 400 other families who arrive here each year.
Built through contributions to the Fisher House Foundation, started in 1990 by philanthropists Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher as a way to give back to service personnel and their families, the program allows the loved ones of the battle-injured like Tuimalealiifano or care-needing veterans to stay close to their loved ones in a home-like environment for free, for as long as they need to.
For the Tuimalealiifanos, that meant a seven-month stay the first time.
Just knowing there was a place to go with other people facing similar travails was comforting, Shannon says.
"I didn't want to be in a tourist-filled hotel full of bright, bubbly, vacationing people while I was emotionally unstable," she says.
At Fisher House – 21 suites in 16,000 amenity-filled square feet - she was surrounded by people caring for loved ones with "missing skull parts and misshapen faces and missing eyes," she says.
"There is a special companionship here," she says. "Instead of being met by uncomfortable stares and whispers, everyone here knows what is going on. People help each other cope. It is very soothing."
Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano says Fisher House helped him push on.
"Knowing my family was in a safe, secure place helped me focus on my rehab and getting through the pain," he says.
That and knowing that, at the end of the day, he could wheel back to a big plate of his favorite food – pisupo sua – Samoan corned beef.
"It is like coming home," he says. "That makes all the difference in the world for my rehabilitation."
Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré knows a thing or two about rehabilitation.
As commanding general of Joint Task Force Katrina, Honoré led rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after the devastating 2005 hurricane.
Thursday night, Honore is giving a speech titled "Leadership and Preparedness in the 21st Century" at the Centre Club in Tampa.
Proceeds will go to Fisher House Foundation and the American Red Cross.
Honoré, now chairman of the board of the St. Petersburg-based Grand ISS security firm, says he is going to urge Tampa Bay residents that they better get ready, because the next big disaster is going to happen one day.
He says he is honored to raise money for wounded warriors.
"Fisher House gives families a chance to reintegrate, as the wounded warrior learns to live with physical limitations and what capabilities this warrior has to take care of himself and life inside his home," Honoré says. "It is a hell of mental adjustment, just doing things like learning how to put a piece of bread in toaster, with an amputated arm or a prosthetic. Hats off to the Fisher Foundation for what they have done."
Shannon Tuimalealiifano says that when her father came to visit Fisher House for the first time, he cried.
"He and my mom both served in Vietnam," she says. "He says he wished there was something like that back then for wounded Vietnam War vets."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski