By Chris Basham
Tim and Michelle Fetz are back at Fisher House. It's the best place to be, even though they'd rather be home. The Warner Robins, Ga. couple stayed at the Joint Base Andrews Fisher House for four months last year, and returned April 30 to stay while Michelle is undergoing experimental treatments at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
"We've been to everything. We started out at our local hospital, and exhausted their resources. We went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. for nine or 10 months and then they referred us to NIH," said Tim Fetz. "Each one exhausted their expertise, but here at NIH it's a research facility, and Michelle has a disease they're studying."
Michelle was first diagnosed with a form of bone marrow failure called severe aplastic anemia. The disease required constant blood transfusions, and left her immune system weak against other illnesses.
"The more transfusions you get, the worse it gets. Iron overdose (from repeated transfusions) is bad for the liver, and the more transfusions you get, the more you need for the bone marrow failure. It's a vicious cycle," explained Tim Fetz.
At NIH in 2011, Michelle Fetz underwent experimental chemotherapy and radiation. By the time they returned to Georgia, Michelle was responding very well to treatment.
"NIH? They saved my life," said Michelle Fetz.
Six months later, however, she had developed preleukemia, which leads to cancer of the bone marrow. It's a common progression for patients with aplastic anemia, and requires a bone marrow transplant. Two of Michelle Fetz's brothers were found to be suitable bone marrow matches, so the family made plans to return to NIH.
While awaiting her scheduled bone marrow transplant, Michelle Fetz developed severe blood infections, just short of reaching her brain. Her doctors in Florida felt she should not make the trip for surgery, "but we went against the doctors' view. We thought it was important to get her to NIH," said Tim Fetz.
Once the couple returned to NIH, "we had a team," Tim Fetz said. "I've never seen so many doctors. Everybody and her brother got involved, just to get her healthy enough to have the bone marrow transplant."
Before the transplant, Michelle Fetz chose to undergo an especially aggressive course of treatment, involving radiation three times per day combined with daily chemotherapy. The seven-day regimen was very intense, but it prepared her body for the bone marrow transplant. She left the hospital at NIH to become an outpatient in August.
"So far, we're doing pretty good," Tim Fetz said, holding his wife's hand in the cozy living room at Fisher House.
Michelle Fetz is fortunate that her disease comes under a current NIH study. She's also fortunate that her husband, Tim, is a USAF veteran.
"I retired from the Air Force in 2008. We came here last year for Michelle's treatment, and after a week we found Fisher House," Tim Fetz said.
Fisher House provides a home away from home for military service members and their families undergoing medical treatment. Joint Base Andrews' Fisher House, located on a sunny hillside on base, has room for up to seven families at a time. Since so many patients come to the Washington, D.C. area for medical treatment, JBA's Fisher House is almost always filled to capacity with families like the Fetzes.
"We'll be here until NIH thinks they can hand her treatment off to our local hospital. We'll be patients of NIH for the rest of our lives," said Tim Fetz. "This is a marathon race. This is no sprint."
The first time the Fetzes came to NIH, they had not heard of Fisher House, even though Tim Fetz served with the Air Force for 24 years. That first week of treatment, the couple stayed in hotels. Not only was the atmosphere impersonalthe cost of lodging and food quickly mounted up.
"That first week cost a thousand dollars. If we had to do it for her entire treatment, we'd have been bankrupt. We've really been blessed," Tim Fetz said.
Then, a relative mentioned Fisher House, and the Fetzes found a home away from home.
"Janet (Grampp, who runs the Fisher House at JBA,) has been family. This is as close to a home as you can get. She's been unbelievably amazing," said Tim Fetz. "You feel like she's giving you preferential treatment, but I kinda think she does it to everybody."
The couple stays at Fisher House and can eat some meals there, saving money at a time when neither of them can work. But it's clearly not only about the money, for families that stay at Fisher House.
"She makes it easier when you're away from your family," said Michelle Fetz. "It means so much. It helps me heal, to feel like someone cares for me."
The house is filled with comfortable furniture, sunlight, friendship and calm. There are cozy bedrooms to facilitate rest, a roomy dining area and an extensive video library for days when the prospect of anything more strenuous than an evening on the couch seems daunting. When life's challenges and anxieties seem insurmountable, Fisher House provides a place to recover, relax and even make new friends.
"Everybody pitches in and works together. If everybody's around on a Saturday, we'll have a cookout," said Tim Fetz. "You meet people here whose lives have been touched. You can feel it when you walk in the door. It's not a sterile place."
The comforting and warm atmosphere at JBA's Fisher House is created on a daily basis by Janet Grampp and her crew of volunteers. Grampp and a custodian are the only paid staff.
"It's a home for our families who are going through treatment or surgery. This particular house, in my mind, goes way beyond a roof over their heads. Everything's provided, they are welcome, and they feel like they are with family," said Grampp, who has run the Fisher House at JBA since the home was built in 1994. Her work centers around keeping the building safe, clean, welcoming and inviting for families for the duration of their stay. Part of her mission, she said, is to ensure that Fisher House feels like home, instead of a government office building.
"There's no way you could provide everything they deserve with just two people. The volunteers are the breath that makes this place live," Grampp said. "This place has to be different. It has to be home."
Volunteers cook and serve meals, shop for the house, provide administrative support and even clean.
"Just about anything you ask them to do, they do it just for the reward of helping," Grampp said. Some of her most faithful volunteers were once Fisher House residents themselves.
Fisher House is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, supported through fundraisers, individual and corporate donations and the Combined Federal Campaign. From the street, it doesn't look like the setting for extraordinary struggles and great compassion.
"People drive by and don't know what's going on. They don't need to know," said Grampp. "If you know when you need to know, then we're doing our job."
For Tim Fetz, Janet Grampp's efforts at Fisher House also inject a little bit of normalcy into an otherwise completely unfamiliar experience.
"She gives me chores to do, so you feel at home. She'll tell me to fix a ceiling fan, or work on something that's broken. It gives us a chance to give something back," said Tim Fetz.
To Michelle, Tim is already giving more than she'd ever expected from a husband.
"It's very humbling. Tim does everything for me. I have lines-- he has to fix them and flush them every day. He does my patches and meds and helps me walk. It's very humbling when you can barely walk on your own, to have somebody stick with you and love you and help you," Michelle Fetz said.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski