Photos by Kelby Wingert, Sentinel Sta
Mara Nesmith and Sgt. Carlos Nesmith, WTU, watch their 9-month-old son, Carlos III, crawl around the Fort Hood Fisher House’s living
room. Staying in the Fisher House while Sgt. Nesmith goes through physical therapy and rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury gives
the Family a sense of comfort and home that they wouldn’t have staying in a hotel room.

Fisher House provides healing home comfort for military Families

By Kelby Wingert – FortHoodSentinel.com

“Because a Family’s love is good medicine.”

That’s the motto of the Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher House Foundation. The Fisher House Foundation was established in 1993, two years after the first two Fisher Houses opened – one at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and one at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Today, there are 71 Fisher Houses open across the nation on 24 military installations and at 29 VA medical centers. Nearly 300,000 Families have benefited from Fisher House programs since 1990, saving more than $320 million in travel and lodging costs.

The Fisher House on Fort Hood, located just across the road from Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, is managed by Theresa Johnson. Johnson has previously been the manager of the Fisher House at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii from 2007 until she came to the Fort Hood house. Before that, she started as a volunteer at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Fisher House in 2006.

The foundation also helps Families of ill or injured service members with travel costs using donated frequent flyer miles and points through the Fisher House’s Hero Miles program. If a service member is sent to a hospital or medical center without a Fisher House nearby, the foundation has a program to cover the costs of staying in a hotel.

While airline points for an individual would eventually expire, once they’re donated to the Hero Miles program, they no longer have an expiration date.

Johnson knows firsthand what it feels like to be in the shoes of the guests she greets at the Fisher House each week. A few years ago, her son, a young sergeant stationed in Germany at the time, was in a serious car accident. It was the Fisher House Foundation that helped get her a flight from Hawaii to Germany to be with her son. Eventually, he was moved to Walter Reed, and she stayed nearby in the Fisher House until she had to fly back to Hawaii for work.

“Every time he had surgery, we were able to use the Hero Miles program to fly out (to Walter Reed) to be with him,” Theresa said.

The Hero Miles program and being able to stay at a Fisher House relieved the financial burden of having to travel thousands of miles away from home to take care of her son while he recovered.

“There’s no way I would have been able to do it (without the help),” Johnson said. “Just the flights to go to Germany for his initial accident would have cost us $7,000, that’s not even including what I would have had to pay to stay out of pocket in town.”

Staying together

Sgt. Carlos Nesmith and his wife, Mara, have been staying at the Fort Hood Fisher House for the past several weeks. Carlos was just a week away from his enlistment period running out and the Family, complete with 9-month-old baby Carlos III, had already started the process of moving back to the couple’s hometown of Corpus Christi. Carlos experienced a blood clot in his leg and the initial treatment included blood thinners that caused blood to pool near the base of his spine, putting pressure on the nerves at the end of his spinal cord. For about two months, he said, he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Today, the former unit supply specialist still cannot stand on his own and does not have the ability to bear weight on his legs.

“I’m slowly getting my legs back,” Carlos said. “But the doctors don’t know if I’m going to have a permanent disability or if I’ll get it back, so they want me to do rehab.”

Once Carlos’ contract with the Army was medically extended, the Family decided it was best to stay near CRDAMC, where Carlos would receive treatment and rehabilitation for his injury. So, what once was a short-term stay at the house has now turned into a slightly longer stay while the Nesmiths wait for a wheelchair-accessible house on post to open up.

Mara said just before they found out about the Fisher House, the plan was for Carlos to stay in the WTU barracks and Mara and the baby would stay back in Corpus Christi for a while. The Fisher House changed that.

“It helps us stay together,” Carlos said. “That’s what I really like about this place.”

Staying at the Fisher House also helps make baby Carlos more comfortable, giving him plenty of space to crawl around and keeping him close to his dad. With this being his first Christmas, Mara said she likes that the house is decorated and festive.

“I like how wide the halls are (here), so I can get in and out, instead of normal houses where they’re pretty tiny, so it would have been pretty difficult,” Carlos said.

He even taught the baby how to sit on Dad’s lap and hold onto the arm rests of the wheelchair.

“We’ll go on little joyrides around the house,” he said.

For the first few weeks Carlos was in the hospital, Mara and the baby stayed every night in his hospital room, sleeping on a cot so they could stay close by.

“(The Fisher House) helped us feel more comfortable, it’s a more friendly environment,” he said.

“There’s more privacy, too,” Mara added. “You get that home feeling, you get more space and you also get privacy … it does make things easier for us.”

Feeling of comfort, home

In March, Staff Sgt. Ioane Titialli, a Reservist on active-duty orders, had a complete knee replacement at CRDAMC. His wife, Pauline, flew down from their home outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, to help him with the recovery process.

“It was just as if he was at home with me and I’m taking care of him,” Pauline said, adding that they wouldn’t have gotten that while staying in a hotel room. “The Fisher House offered that feeling of comfort and home, which is amazing if you think about the healing process.”

As the couple stayed in the Fisher House, Ioane’s nurses and physical therapists came by each day for appointments, which would have been more difficult if they were staying in a regular hotel room or at Ioane’s room in the barracks, the couple said.

“It’s also helped him heal faster and they comment on that, the nurses, the physical therapists,” Pauline added. “Every day they come, they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re really improved from the last time.’”

As anyone who has taken care of an ill or injured loved one knows, there’s a lot of stress added into the process. For Pauline, staying at the Fisher House, with CRDAMC and her husband’s doctors just a short walk or even shorter drive away, much of that stress is put at ease.

“I don’t have to worry about anything. I just have to worry about taking care of him,” she said.

Before being assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Hood, the Titiallis had never heard of the Fisher House. It was one of Ioane’s case workers who told him about the house when Ioane mentioned his wife was going to fly down from Colorado for a week to help him recover.

And once Pauline’s week-long stay was extended another week, it wasn’t a problem accommodating that at the Fisher House.

Since then, the couple has started telling everyone they know with a military connection about the Fisher House and how it benefits military Families.

“It’s very helpful for our Soldiers. The Soldier doesn’t have to pay for this – this is free,” he said, emphasizing the financial burden that often comes along with long hospital stays away from home. The Fisher House aims to relieve that added burden.

Ioane added that the process to reserve room at the house and check in was very smooth.

“It makes our life so much easier,” he said.

Many military Families that end up staying at the Fisher House or using one of its programs have never heard of the organization before that instance. Some have previously been in situations where they could have benefitted from the programs, but just didn’t know about it, Johnson said.

Any CRDAMC patient with a military ID card and access to military benefits – including spouses and children of service members and retirees – is eligible to use the Fisher House’s services. Even if the patient is sent to another hospital nearby, Families can stay at the Fisher House if they need it, Johnson said.

Families stay at a Fisher House for a variety of reasons – whether their patient is a car accident victim, wounded in a combat zone, injured in a training accident, a mother and premature baby, or receiving care for a major medical issue and needing surgery or physical rehabilitation.

There is also no time limit for how long a Family can stay – they are welcome to stay as long as their patient is receiving care.

Occasionally, a Fisher House is booked full or a patient is sent to a medical center without a Fisher House nearby. The foundation has programs for these situations that provide hotel vouchers for the Family members.

For more information about the Fisher House Foundation, visit fisherhouse.org.

By Kelby Wingert – FortHoodSentinel.com