When Fisher House Charleston Manager Vicki Johnson welcomed the first family to the 16-suite home-away-from-home that provides free accommodations for families of Veterans receiving care at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in January 2018, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
But she knew this house was going to be a special place. One year, and some 750 families later, Johnson and her team have seen firsthand the impact of being near their loved ones in a comfortable home where they are “loved on” has had on the guests who stay there.
She tells the story of a Veteran who brought his wife to stay at the house, believing he would never survive the next day’s surgery. As he pulled Johnson away for a private conversation, he demanded, “Promise me she won’t be alone.” And in that moment, Johnson’s promise was made and her team’s mission was clearly defined.
“Those are the moments that matter here,” said Johnson, “him being able to know his wife was taken care of so he could focus on getting better.” So, the team made sure the wife ate regularly, had transportation to and from the hospital, and a warm, comforting welcome when she returned.
“We excel in the hugging, loving, Kleenex passing, dessert serving,” said Johnson, an Air Force Veteran herself, who adds this is the most meaningful thing she’s ever done.
Six days later, that Veteran walked through the doors at Fisher House Charleston with a huge smile, exclaiming he survived surgery and was now cancer free! Those are the days of joy for Johnson.
But there are also days of sorrow when the Veterans or families are struggling with health issues and the stresses of unknown futures. It’s in those moments that Johnson is reminded how important it is to have the right staff and volunteers to do everything from carrying luggage to cooking meals to lending an understanding ear each day.
“When they come to stay with us they become part of our family,” explained Johnson. “We share in the joy when the cancer is gone and the surgery went well, and we also share in the sorrow when the outcome does not go well.”
That family includes some 35 volunteers who give their time regularly; more than 1,000 volunteers who have contributed over the past year; the local nonprofit Friends of Fisher House Charleston, which raises donations to sustain the local operation; the Fisher House Foundation; and Trux and Durbin Emerson, who worked tirelessly for several years to raise the funds to build the house.
For Johnson and the entire team, it’s a purpose unlike any other.
“At the end of the day,” she concluded, “you know you’ve made a difference for the families.”