A home away from home
Fisher House, a new residence on the grounds of Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital, gives families of military soldiers a place to stay while loved ones recover
Name : Lauren McSherry Photographs Norbert von der Groeben
Eight weeks after their son was injured in Iraq, Tim and Linda Perry carried their suitcases into a newly decorated bedroom at the Fisher House in Palo Alto. It had been a long journey from their Somers, Conn. home - in more ways than one.
On Feb. 22, an explosive-laden truck slammed into a bunker where their 20-year-old son Daniel - an Army sniper with the 101st Airborne, 2nd Platoon near Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad - was staying. The blast sprayed him with shrapnel, broke his right arm, burned part of his face, shredded his left ear and nearly blinded his left eye.
But the worst and most lasting of his injuries was to his brain.
After days and nights by Daniel’s bedside at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where soldiers seriously injured in Iraq are flown, nothing could stop the Perry’s from accompanying their son to the Palo Alto Veteran Affairs Hospital, one of four military-run Traumatic Brain Injury Units in the United States.
By that time, nearly two months after the blast, Daniel had emerged from seven days in a medically induced coma and was walking and talking. His body was healing quickly, but his memory wasn’t.
Walter Reed doctors told the Perry’s it was the worst memory loss they had ever witnessed and presented them with a choice of four brain trauma centers. The Perry’s chose Palo Alto because they were told it ranked No. 1.
Tim arrived April 6 at the Palo Alto VA with Daniel, who remains on active duty. Linda came a few days later after tending to last-minute details at their home.
Their arrival was timely: On April 19, the Palo Alto VA held grand-opening ceremonies for the new Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher House, which accommodates families such as the Perrys. The stately 21-suite, $5 million temporary residence is located on the Palo Alto VA grounds near Foothill Expressway and Arastradero Road.
Daniel’s situation is not unusual. Brain injuries are a hallmark of the Iraq War, attributed in part to improvements in body armor that enables soldiers to survive blasts that killed earlier generations of troops.
Brain injuries affect an estimated 62 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center at Walter Reed.
That 62 percent translates to more than 10,500 of the 17,000 U.S. soldiers so far wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the Department of Defense.
In previous wars, brain injuries accounted for just 20 percent of injuries.
But the frequency of attacks by rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices and land mines in Iraq and improvements in protective devices, such as Kevlar helmets and body armor, means soldiers are more likely to encounter - and survive - an explosion.
Brain-trauma center officials at the Palo Alto VA are preparing for the arrival of families accompanying soldiers seeking long-term intensive rehabilitation. The opening of a Fisher House is a major element of the preparations.
Family members can stay for free and as long as needed. The only condition is their homes must be located a significant commuting distance from the hospital, more than 50 miles.
Some families, like the Perrys, have come across the country to be with their loved ones.
The colonial-revival home, with its brick facade and tall white columns, is the 34th Fisher House built - at least one Fisher House has been constructed at every major military medical center.
Money to build the houses comes from private donors and is matched by the Fisher House Foundation. Zachary Fisher, who died in 1999 at 89, made his fortune in New York real estate and construction. Blocked from serving in World War II by a leg injury, he dedicated his efforts and funds to helping servicemen and the military.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, launched the Fisher House program in 1990, dedicating more than $20 million to building homes for families of hospitalized military personnel.
More than 153,000 days of lodging are now provided by Fisher Houses each year, saving families an estimated $5 million annually. More than 35,000 families have stayed in Fisher Houses.
The16,000-square-foot structure in Palo Alto is about three times the size of the original Fisher House.
Its understated exterior only hints at its palatial interior, akin to a five-star hotel.
A dining room seats up to 36 and the kitchen has a wall of refrigerators, two of every type of appliance and marble-topped counters. The bedrooms have flat-screen TVs, and every room is filled with expensive-looking furniture, from plush armchairs to darkly stained sideboards of carved wood and coffee tables that aren’t the sort for resting feet on.
There are two wings of bedrooms on the bottom floor and more bedrooms on the second floor.
For Tim and Linda Perry, the house offers one priceless amenity: It allows them to be with their son. Their bedroom window even looks out to his room in the wing housing the brain-trauma unit.
The Fisher House is already their home away from home. They unpacked with the understanding the house could be their residence for some time - Daniel could be receiving treatment for up to one year.
The Perrys have made sacrifices to come to Palo Alto. They left their house, their eldest son, Jason, and granddaughter in Connecticut, and currently have no steady source of income.
“I’d lose everything for Danny,” Linda said. “We’re going to take it day by day.”
But financial considerations are looming. She and Tim are getting by on credit cards, money from friends and family and donations from their church back home and former church in Gilroy, where they lived until last year. Their health insurance ends in July.
At the time they received the call about Daniel’s injury, Tim was looking for work.
Linda thought a prospective employer was on the line, but when she saw Tim on his knees cradling the phone, she knew something was terribly wrong.
“(The officer) told me only that Danny was a VS3, which is very seriously injured. Three being the worst,” Tim said.
The following day, they packed their bags and rushed to join their son at Walter Reed.
Other military families understand what the Perrys have experienced.
Tonia Sargent, who launched the fundraising effort to build the Palo Alto Fisher House, faced a similar situation more than a year ago when an officer called to notify her that her husband, Kenneth Sargent, at the time a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, had been wounded in Iraq. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury when a bullet pierced his right eye and exited through the left side of his head. His jaw was shattered and the right side of his body paralyzed.
When she arrived at the Palo Alto VA to be with her husband, Tonia had no place to stay. With months of hospital time ahead of her, she found herself facing the expensive rents and even more expensive hotel rates in the area.
Tonia couldn’t afford either. She had quit her job near their home at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, to help care for her husband in the hospital. She left her two teenage daughters with her disabled mother.
The first night she stayed in the VA’s “hometel,” a motel-type residence with rooms for outpatient veterans recovering from surgery. But the hospital could not guarantee her lodging, and the “hometel” is intended for veterans, not wives of active-duty military service members.
Tonia decided to do something. She called everyone she knew and started collecting donations. The first donation,$5,000, came from a nurse in the Spinal Cord Injury Center. (VA Nurses were familiar with the plight faced by some family members. They had been asked by military wives to let them stay past visiting hours and sleep by their husbands’ sides.)
For Tonia, the fund raising effort was empowering and helped counteract the sudden uncertainties in her life.
“I had been married to structure for 19 years,” she said, referring to being a military wife.
Another lasting and important change Tonia achieved was the appointment of a military liaison to assist families with coordinating medical care and filing medical-benefits paperwork.
The Fisher House that Tonia worked so hard to make a reality has already given back some semblance of normalcy to the Perry family.
Daniel walks to the house around 8 a.m. to have coffee with his parents, returning to the hospital for the morning routine of speech, physical and occupational therapy appointments. He is working on judgment, memory, reasoning, balance and emotions - all affected by his brain injury.
At noon Linda makes Daniel lunch before his appointment with his neuropsychologist.
Daniel would even like to live at the Fisher House instead of the brain-trauma ward, where he is the youngest patient.
It is more likely that he will live as an outpatient at the Menlo Park Veterans Affairs Hospital when he is well enough, commuting to the Palo Alto VA each day as part of his rehabilitation.
Daniel is adjusting to the civilian lifestyle. He is thinking about his future and considering going to college. He is enjoying some the freedoms he gave up when he entered the military at 18. But he says it’s difficult being away from his friends, many of whom are still stationed in Iraq.
“I wish I was helping out my guys,” he said with emotion, letting down his guard in a rare moment.
On a recent night at the Fisher House, Linda fixed a salad and cooked chicken and noodles, corn and biscuits.
Over dinner she broke the news they will have to resubmit all the paperwork for Daniel’s injury settlement. She had received word from the VA military liaison that day.
Daniel was frustrated by the news; Linda was nonplussed. Handling her son’s medical paperwork has become her full-time job. She totes a computer-carrying case filled with medical forms - so many documents have been generated in the weeks since Daniel’s return from Iraq that some have to be stored in their house in Connecticut.
After dinner, Tim washed dishes and Daniel cleared the table, just like at home.
It was time to return to the VA.
“I’ll see ya in the morning,” Daniel told his mom.
“Can I have kiss? And what time?” she asked.
“I’ll see you when I decide to get up,” he wisecracked.
“I’ll see you at 8.”
“8:15,” he compromised, stooping to kiss her. Then he walked in soldier mode out the door and down the path back to his hospital room in the brain-trauma wing.