VA Fisher Houses open doors to healthcare workers in COVID-19 push

By: David Nye
June 10, 2020
VAntage Point

Fifteen of the 44 Fisher Houses that serve VA have pivoted to support the front line health care professionals that are risking their own well-being to save others.

Fisher Houses are comfort homes built at or near VA and military hospitals. They host families and caregivers of service members, Veterans, and family members undergoing medical care.

The conversion of these houses to support frontline healthcare professionals has helped ensure that healthy staff members can make the most of their limited rest time and keep their own families safe.

“Fisher House provides me with a safe, comfortable room to rest between night shifts, so I do not have to drive back and forth from New Hampshire,” Bethany McEleney, a physical therapist at the VA Boston Healthcare System who is working 12-hour shifts in the intensive care unit, said. “This place of respite supports the whole ICU team because I arrive rested every day.”

For other healthcare professionals, staying at Fisher House is a way to ensure that they can continue working to save Veteran lives even if they have vulnerable family members in their own home.

Allison Conlon is a registered nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at VA Boston HCS, and she has a 2-year-old with special medical needs at home.

“I feel so grateful and so fortunate to have a room here. This has been one of the most difficult experiences but living here at the Fisher House and working with such supportive MICU nurses has made it that much easier.”

The Fisher House Foundation gifts Fisher Houses to the VA. Typically, their use is restricted to supporting military and Veteran families while a loved one is undergoing care at a medical facility. When the VA proposed the transition of Fisher Houses to support health care professionals, Fisher House Foundation encouraged the exceptions as the health care systems rapidly adapted to the current situation.

“Since my great uncle, Zachary, and his wife, Elizabeth, started the first Fisher House, it has always been about supporting those who serve,” said Ken Fisher, Chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation. “More than 30 years later, that has not changed, but the needs of Veterans and service members have temporarily shifted in this crisis. Fisher House Foundation is proud to work with our partners at the VA to serve those health care professionals who are serving our Veterans every day.”

“The transition of Fisher Houses for housing to support our health care workers allows VA to execute all aspects of our mission, including VA’s fourth of supporting the national COVID-19 response,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “VA continues to provide Fisher House programming for Veterans and their families while supporting the needs of our staff.”

Fisher House managers had to balance the long-term needs of the houses against the immediate needs of the medical systems they support when adapting to this new calling.

House Manager Erik Zielinski of the South Texas VA described in a blog post how during a four-day period, five Fisher House staff members, three volunteers and one housekeeper worked together as a team to transition the house to accommodate this new mission.

Holly Wright, manager of the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital Fisher House, explained how her team ensured that safe social distancing could be maintained in the house.

“We had amazing support from our community as we made this conversion, and we look forward to their support when we’re able to welcome Veterans and their families once again,” said Wright. “We took proactive steps to make the conversion back as easy as possible, like storing away decorations and fabrics that would be hard to sanitize, but we will still need masks, hand sanitizer, and other supplies to help maintain a safe environment for our families.”

House managers also had to ensure that their house can quickly transition back to hosting military and Veterans’ families.

“By re-activating the Fisher House with social distance guidelines and creating self- service stations and virtual communications, we strive to support our front-line staff as they do this life saving work and give them and their loved ones a fighting chance to stay safe,” said VA Boston Healthcare Fisher House Manager Elizabeth St. Pierre.

More information

For more information on Fisher Houses, go to www.fisherhouse.org  on the Internet, or call toll-free (888) 294-8560. For additional information about the VA Fisher Houses, contact Jennifer Koget, National Program Manager, VA Fisher House and Family Hospitality Program Jennifer.koget@va.govor 724-996-2717.