Home away from home

Bill Chenoweth (left) of Copperas Cove, Texas, listens as his brother, Robert Chenoweth of Savannah talks about the need to have his brother with him when he went through an amputation surgery last week.

Sick children and their families who live out of town have the Ronald McDonald House of Charleston.

Cancer patients and their families have the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge.

But where can military veterans and their families visiting Charleston for surgeries and vital rehabilitation at the Veteran’s Administration hospital stay for free in a warm, friendly atmosphere where others are going through the similar crises?

For now, nowhere.

But an effort springing out of Kiawah Island seeks to change that.

This weekend kicks off the first of many fundraising efforts for The Harbour House, envisioned as a 20-suite, 16,000-square-foot facility similar to Fisher House facilities connected to other VA hospitals across the nation.

Those fundraisers include a golf tournament, expecting to bring in $160,000, and a portion of the proceeds from the Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s inaugural Kiawah Triathlon.

The Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center, the VA hospital serving about 55,000 veterans living along the coast from Myrtle Beach to Hinesville, Ga., isn’t eligible for a Fisher House because the federal government requires that hospitals use federal property contiguous to the hospitals.

The prospect for the Harbour House arose after Durbin and Trux Emerson of Kiawah Island approached golf resort managers about holding a golf tournament for the Wounded Warrior Project.

But after a meeting with Maj. General James E. Livingston and the VA’s Public Affairs Officer Tonya Lobbestael, they learned of the need for a local facility similar to a Fisher House.

“The pieces fell together for us,” recalls Durbin Emerson, adding that the retired couple, who have no military backgrounds, felt a strong calling. “It’s given a purpose for us that exceeds anything else we’ve done except having our children.”

The more Emersons delved into the cause, including a visit to the Fisher House at Fort Bragg, N.C., the more they realized the need for a facility, especially as younger veterans with families fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan start to flood VAs with an array of health issues.

Because of those veterans, Maj. Gen. Livingston says building the Harbour House is both urgent and long overdue. “I’m hoping the community will rally around this,” says Livingston, ambitiously hoping it will come to fruition in two years. “Now’s the time to catch up.”

The challenge is not only finding the right piece of land, ideally located within walking distance of the VA, but the price tag: an estimated $10 million.

One week ago today, 62-year-old Robert Chenoweth of Savannah had his lower right leg amputated.

The amputation stemmed from a car wreck, as a civilian, in 1991, that severely injured his tibia and fibula above the ankle, then subsequent work-related falls in 2000 and 2010.

Last May, time caught up to him and he was so disabled that he had to quit working as a chef at a neighborhood bar and grill on Wilmington Island, Ga.

The Vietnam veteran, who served in the Navy from 1969 to 1971, was joined in Charleston last week by his younger brother, Bill Chenoweth, who flew in from his home in Copperas Cove, Texas, and served in the Army from 1982 to 2002.

“I can’t tell you how great it was to have him here for this,” says Robert. “He was the last person I saw before going into surgery and the first I saw after coming out of it. ... I’m so glad he was here.”

But, similar to many vets, it was a bit of a financial burden for Bill.

His flight cost $800 and his two-night stay at a nearby hotel was nearly $200.

“If he (Robert) would’ve had an extended stay and I ... had to stay a couple of weeks, I would’ve had to make other arrangements,” admits Bill. “I probably would have started sleeping in his car.”

“I can’t imagine folks who are in tougher shape than me, what they would do.”

Despite the fact that the VA in Charleston mostly serves vets within a three-hour drive, the cost of fuel, parking and time still puts an unnecessary strain on them and their families, says Lobbestael.

According to VA statistics, the average annual income for a veteran living in South Carolina and Georgia is $34,000. And to be eligible for VA health care, the combined income of veterans and spouse can’t exceed $39,000 per year.

Lobbestael says the VA’s “Hoptel” program provides limited, temporary lodging for some veterans, but requires that one must travel at least 75 miles, or two hours, from his or her home. Typically, Hoptel covers one night and averages 12 rooms a day.

Meanwhile, the average length of stay for veterans for an inpatient treatment is 31/2 days and three days for their families.

The importance of having family support, Lobbestael says, is well-documented by VA research. Results show fewer patient falls, reduced patient stress and improved privacy, communication on care and increased patient satisfaction.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand courier.com.