For 32 years, more than 430,000 U.S. service members, veterans and their families have made a Fisher House their home away from home during lengthy hospital stays and short-term outpatient care — all free of charge.
The first Fisher House opened in 1991 at the former National Naval Medical Center — now called Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — in Bethesda, Maryland. Later this year, the 93rd Fisher House is scheduled to open in Lexington, Kentucky.
Located at major military and Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, VA Fisher Houses outnumber Defense Department houses 50 to 41. The houses provide up to 5,840 nights of lodging, saving veterans and service members more than $640,000 annually, according to the foundation.
There's also a Fisher House UK at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England. It's a special partnership between the Fisher House Foundation, Helping Our Heroes Foundation and University Hospitals Birmingham Charity. It's the only Fisher House that supports another country's service members.
Lexington Fisher House
The Lexington house will accommodate 16 veterans and their families in nearly 15,000 square feet of living space. It will be the first VA Fisher House in Kentucky. A Fisher House for service members operates at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
The foundation works with DOD's three military surgeons general and the VA to decide where the houses are most needed, based — in large part — on the number of service members and veterans in the area.
Each Fisher House is known for the instant community created by residents, who are united by their common mission of supporting a sick or injured loved one. Each house gives service members, veterans and families a refuge to rest and recharge after a long day at the hospital, a foundation spokesperson said.
Sense of Community
Dennis Dutton, an Army and Air Force veteran, is at one of Walter Reed's five Fisher Houses. A kidney-transplant patient, Dutton particularly enjoys the sense of community and camaraderie with other patients and families.
Dutton's wife, Jenny, teleworks from Fisher House, which features 16 individual rooms, an open dining room, large kitchen and community rooms. "Oh, we're blessed," Dutton said. "It's being able to interact with other patients and families [that's meaningful] because you're able to share your experiences — and that helps, especially when you don't have a transplant every day," he said.
"It provides a little comfort because you're going through the same thing, and being able to support each other is another benefit you wouldn't get in a hotel. It's more than just a facility; it's also a community. It's the military connections that make it home for us," he said. Dutton expects to return home to Kingsport, Tennessee, when his medical treatment is completed in August.
Ken Fisher, Fisher House Foundation's chairman and CEO, said his uncle, Zachary Fisher, built the first of the Fisher Houses. In 1990, Zachary Fisher got a call from Pauline Trost, wife of the then-chief of naval operations. She told the developer and architect that some service members were sleeping in their vehicles because they couldn't afford a hotel during lengthy outpatient care. He volunteered to build the first couple of Fisher Houses for military patients and their families.
Taking on the family legacy, the younger Fisher became CEO of the foundation after dedicating a house at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. "I think Uncle Zachary knew what he was doing when he sent me there because I immediately got involved in it," he recalled.
While his work with the foundation began as a desire to continue a legacy, Fisher said it's now his life. "I love that Fisher House has become so important to me personally and to the families," he said.
"I've never served, so this was something I had to reconcile," Fisher said. "I didn't want to run the foundation and be ignorant about [the issues] for the sake of just running it. So, I immersed myself in it. What I learned was the entire family serves, and when a loved one is wounded, sick or injured, their lives get turned upside down."
When Fisher was appointed to the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors, his learning curve exploded — particularly with wounded service members returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he noted.
"As we know, the battlefield survival rates in OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] and OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] were over 95%, which means [service members] were surviving horrific wounds from [improvised explosive devices] and other terrible things that would have been fatal in previous conflicts," he said.
That placed an untold burden on military and VA hospitals to take care of the wounded, and building Fisher Houses at VA medical centers became critical, Fisher said.
Family Support Is Vital
Like other Fisher Houses, the Lexington house "will allow families to get together and support each other because one of the byproducts that came from these houses was … when you put that many people together in such a stressful situation, nobody was sure how that was going to play out. It, it took root as a support system forming in each house, and that support system has really become the brick and mortar that holds these houses together," Fisher said.
Having family with a hospitalized service member was a beacon of light early when service members were coming back from the war in Afghanistan with traumatic head injuries and other wounds that prevented them from advocating for themselves in a medical environment.
"It became vital for them to have family there, not only to support them, but to advocate for them in terms of medical treatment," Fisher said.
He said another byproduct of having families stay at Fisher Houses is that it gives family members the chance to heal, too, because they're also experiencing trauma. "Having the family there is so important in that regard," Fisher added.
Fisher Houses operate as public-private partnerships with donors after the houses are given to DOD and VA medical treatment facilities. After the foundation came to fruition, there were two main stipulations: The houses had to be within walking distance to the hospital, and the accommodations had to be free of charge, Fisher emphasized. "Fisher Houses provide a safe haven for the families and allow the patient to worry about their recovery and not about their families," he said.
When Fisher Houses are fully occupied, the Hotel for Heroes program may provide a hotel room. Veterans and service members who want more information can visit FisherHouse.org, call the foundation at 888-294-8560 or 301-294-8560, or talk to the social worker handling their case or a Fisher House manager.
Meals at Fisher Houses aren't provided, but families may bring food to cook in communal kitchens stocked with utensils, pots and pans. A foundation spokesperson said community volunteers sometimes contribute meals, beverages, coffee and snacks. Some houses have bins in the refrigerators so guests in each room can store groceries. Fisher House Foundation and other donors sometimes provide meal cards.
If veterans need transportation, the Hero Miles program uses donated frequent flier miles to pay for flights when transportation is unavailable, a spokesperson said.
Fisher estimated service members, veterans and their families have saved $500,000 million in travel and lodging expenses through other foundation initiatives that help them access medical treatment.
Fisher said any given night, 1,300 families will sleep safely in a Fisher House. "It is a privilege for me to do this every day," he said.
Fisher House Helping Military Families
Friends of Lexington Fisher House
Fisher House UK-UHB Charity