Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Fisher House marks five years in Milwaukee
On April 23, 2016, the Fisher House Milwaukee opened on the Milwaukee VA Medical Center campus to much fanfare and celebration.
Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, its five-year anniversary will be marked much more quietly.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Fisher House Milwaukee manager Jennifer Kiefer, adding that the facility is known for opening the doors and celebrating its successes with the public.
“We probably would have held it on a Saturday and invited the community and the media. But we’ll get back there.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for celebration.
The facility, which provides free housing for families while their loved ones are treated at the hospital, has served more than 3,000 families in its five years in Milwaukee.
While some have stayed for one night, others have stayed for weeks and months. Some families are regulars, coming due to annual appointments or ongoing treatments.
“It’s been an amazing thing that we can provide,” Kiefer said.
And while the house has managed to stay open through the pandemic, it’s been a much different atmosphere.
The communal spaces – kitchen, dining room, TV/family room, patio – have been quiet. When numerous guests are in the house, they’re asked to take turns in the common areas and not gather as they normally would.
Minors were pretty much verboten that past year, and in general only one family member was allowed per stay, Kiefer said.
In addition, because visitation at the hospital was limited, guests were not allowed extended stays at the Fisher House. That meant mostly one-night stays.
“People were absolutely fine with that. I think they were grateful to come and spend the night and leave … (knowing) we’re just trying to keep the house a safe place,” Kiefer said.
Pre-COVID, the house would typically have most of its 16 suites occupied on a nightly basis. But over the past year, Kiefer said the house saw about two or three families a week.
And considering the Fisher House mission, the past year was quite an about-face.
“The mission of Fisher House is all about coming together, supporting each other, sharing meals and sharing celebrations,” Kiefer said. “But we were still successful in that we were able to stay open for those families who needed us.”
The first Fisher Houses opened in 1991 in Bethesda, Md., serving the National Naval Medical Center, and Washington, D.C., connected to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They were established by philanthropist Zachary Fisher.
The concept took hold, and there are now 90 Fisher Houses, including houses in England and Germany.
The Fisher House Milwaukee is the first in Wisconsin; plans were announced earlier this year for a second house to be built in Madison.
Because Fisher Houses are funded 100 percent by donations – no taxpayer money – a community has to come together to support them.
Fisher House Milwaukee cost about $7 million to build -- “from the ground up, fully furnished,” Kiefer said -- with half of the money raised in the community. The other half came from the Fisher House Foundation.
Support in Milwaukee has come from large organizations, such as the Milwaukee Brewers, down to individuals and small groups hosting their own fundraisers. Events have included golf outings, barbecues, motorcycle rides and concerts.
“We have lots of community support, and we do lots of outreach,” Kiefer said.
‘Close and safe’
Lynette Geib, from Menominee, Mich., was one of the first guests at Fisher House Milwaukee, coming after her husband Thomas was hurt in a fall and had to be treated in the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Milwaukee VA.
“It was such a really nice experience,” she said. “You have enough to worry about without having to find a place to stay that is close and safe. Knowing you’re right next to your loved one is nice.”
On the first trip, Geib stayed for a few months, and she has returned for Thomas’ regular appointments.
“The staff is so helpful,” she said. “They’re friendly and easy to talk to.”
The house is supported by about a dozen volunteers, many of whom have been with the house since it opened, Kiefer said.
“They’re a really dedicated group who have formed friendships outside of volunteering here,” she said, noting that the volunteers also bond with the guests as well.
In her five years at the Fisher House helm, Kiefer has seen her share of celebrations and people coming together as well as some heartbreak and tears.
It’s not unusual for guests to arrive in distress, or to be anxious while awaiting word of medical procedures for their loved ones.
Kiefer and her staff do their part to provide comfort, or to back away when privacy is required.
“We do training every year in providing compassion and empathy, but also having boundaries,” she said, noting the staff works closely with the VA chaplains and other hospital professionals. “You have to be very mindful, especially in an environment like this, with how much support you give.
“There are people who are really private and don’t want to engage, but we also have families who will sit down and talk your ear off. It’s about knowing when it’s OK to support, when it’s OK to hug, when it’s OK to cry. And not everybody is into that, and that’s OK too.”
Sometimes families come together. Kiefer remembers a pair of families whose lengthy stays coincided.
“They got very close and would take turns making dinner for each other,” she said, noting the families made plans to get together after their stays. “It’s amazing the connections people make here, especially the long-term families.”
As well as providing support, Fisher House is all about celebrating good outcomes.
“We celebrate everything here,” Kiefer said, from holidays and anniversaries to special events and open houses.
It’s not unusual for community groups to come in, and everyone works together to meet the needs of the guests.
Because in the end, the Fisher House exists to provide a safe, comforting home away from home for the families, Kiefer said.
“The (Fisher House) motto is, ‘A family’s love is good medicine,’” she said. “The main purpose of the family is to be with the Veteran at the bedside.”
When families check into Fisher House, the Veteran is often there as well. Seeing the home often puts them at ease, Kiefer said, which in turn comforts the family.
“There have been so many times you can feel the tension fall off the Veteran when they see where their family member is going to be,” Kiefer said. “When the Veterans know the family members are going to be taken care of, they can focus on healing.”
Plus the family members know they are only steps away from the Veteran.
“There’s so much peace of mind for the Veteran and the family that they can be this close and have this comfortable environment here,” Kiefer said.