Our Hearts Connected

By: Kerri Childress
June 1, 2017

The sign on the Fisher House manager’s door read, “Take a deep breath. You are home.” And that’s exactly what Pearl Clark did.

“I was a basket case. I saw that sign and, yes ma’am, that’s what I did. Took a deep breath and sighed,” said Pearl, wife of Vietnam combat Veteran Ernest Clark who had just suffered a severe stroke and they were not sure he’d live.

That was more than three and a half years ago and Pearl and Ernest have used the Hines VA Fisher House in Chicago more times than they can count since then. The care at the Chicago VA hospital has been great, according to Pearl, but the ups and downs were inevitable. What got her through those troubled times? Another Vietnam Veteran’s wife and her husband, Nancy and Jim Hogan.

“Pearl and I laugh, we cry, we talk and tell each other our life stories,” said Nancy, whose husband of 46 years was on hospice at the time with cancer. “What’s most amazing is that we come from completely different walks of life — we just couldn’t be more different. And yet, we met and we bonded at the Fisher House. She is one of my dearest friends — a life-long friend,” she said as she reached over to hug Pearl and bump foreheads.

Pearl, who loves the outdoors, even got Nancy working in the garden for the first time in her life. She taught Nancy how to enjoy the excitement of the lottery and playing cards. They went for walks and took turns pushing Jim — even walked a local 5K together.

“We are quite a team,” laughed Nancy. “Pearl is 6 feet tall and here I am a little over five feet. Pearl is outgoing, funny and full of life. I’m actually quite shy. Pearl was a police officer and I was a homemaker. So different, but our hearts connected, as our friendship grew at Fisher House.”

And the husbands bonded, too. “I went over to visit Jim,” said Ernest, “and I told him he’d better get out of that hospital bed, because we still needed to go fishing together.” Ernest and Jim are both in wheelchairs, but that doesn’t stop either of them from fishing and it certainly doesn’t stop Ernest from caring about Nancy and Jim. “We are bonded for life,” he said.

This is what happens behind the closed door of a Fisher House. People stay there because it’s free and near the hospital. They enjoy the 5-star quality of the home. They cook their favorite meals and visit with the manager and volunteers. But it is the friendships that develop between the families that really sets a Fisher House apart from a hotel.

“Even when I get home and the phone rings and it says ‘Pearl Fisher House,’ my heart warms and I know Pearl is just needing to chat,” said Nancy. “I know, too, that I can do the same — day or night — she will be there for me. How many people are lucky enough to have a friend like that?”

Ernest, who laughingly says he spent his 21st birthday outrunning bullets, is a grandfather and a great grandfather. He chuckles when he says, “Nancy’s my mom and Jim’s my pops, even though I’m older than them both.” During the many days when Ernest was in the hospital struggling to regain his life, he at least knew that Pearl was not alone — she had friends at Fisher House.

“I got a call a week ago. It was Nancy,” said Pearl. "She told me that Jim’s cancer was everywhere, it was bad and he was on hospice. I told her Ernest had an appointment at the hospital and that I would be there soon. Nancy is a strong, beautiful woman and I had never seen her cry. When I walked in the door of the Fisher House, she came running into my arms. She was crying. I was crying. I told her I was there for her and even when I go home, all she has to do is call and I will come right back. She would not have to go through this alone. I would be there for her.”

And when Jim passed a few weeks later— that’s exactly what Pearl Clark did.