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Charleston's Fisher House is a home for veterans' families during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Since June 2019, Jo Ann Vaught has been making the 130-mile trip each month from Loris, near Myrtle Beach, to Charleston to get her husband the treatment he needs at the VA hospital. 

When she has to rest her head between moments of comforting him, she said the Fisher House on Wentworth Street has been her "home away from home." 

Fisher House, where guests stay free of charge as either a veteran or service member, is for those who receive care at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. It has become a necessity for hundreds of South Carolina families.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the home continues to house anyone who needs a place to stay and offers help during the financial and physical hardships caused by the virus. 

But it hasn't been easy. 

Charleston Fisher House

Charleston's Fisher House places clean utensils in plastic to protect guests during the coronavirus pandemic. Brad Nettles/Staff

Part of the mission of Fisher House is to make the environment as comfortable, friendly and familiar as possible. But in a COVID-19 world, everything has changed. 

Meals that were typically served family-style are now prepackaged. Mingling that was once encouraged in the dining room and common areas has been curbed. A full-house of 16 rooms has now been reduced to eight, to increase social distancing. 

In these economic hard times, having free meals and free lodging is a godsend for many families. But Fisher House is also in need of assistance. To help provide for guests, the Friends of Fisher House has raised funds to subsidize costs associated with the home's mission. 

That comes as charitable organizations are hurting. A recent survey from the Charities Aid Foundation of America found that 96.5 percent of respondents reported experiencing negative impacts related to the virus nationwide, including a drop in contributions.

Kent Hutchinson, treasurer for Friends of Fisher House, said the home isn't immune to those financial impacts and that flagging contribution numbers have been "terrible" compared with past years.

"We have been getting around $4,000 or $5,000 a month in contributions," Hutchinson said. "But last year we were getting $14,000 or $15,000 a month."

Despite the financial hardships, Fisher House hasn't turned anyone away.

Still, there are stories of those trying to make do. Because of high hotel room prices in the Holy City, up to 25 percent of treated veterans had family members sleeping in their hospital room or in their vehicle, according to Fisher House. 

Additionally, Charleston's VA has had some COVID-19 patients — 20 at one point, spokeswoman Tonya Lobbestael said. As a result, family visits have mostly been prohibited.

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Charleston Fisher House

Charleston's Fisher House has opted for single-serve foods and drinks to protect guests during the coronavirus pandemic. Brad Nettles/Staff

Fisher House also doesn't know which veterans are being treated for COVID-19 or if their families may have been exposed to the virus. So, the challenge becomes trying to accommodate as many people as safely possible in the 15,000-square-foot, 16-bedroom home.

With help from the VA, numerous precautions have been taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.

When guests arrive, they have their temperatures taken immediately. They are given branded Fisher House masks (that come in blue, black or camouflage). The operation has added touchless soap and water dispensers throughout the home.

Silverware and food items are individually packaged. In the rooms, remote controls are wrapped and plastic seals are placed around all of the toilets. Elevator buttons, door handles and tables are routinely washed by staff members. 

Charleston Fisher House

Percy Jones, housekeeping supervisor for the Fisher House, cleans the kitchen with disinfectant Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, to help protect guests during the coronavirus pandemic. Brad Nettles/Staff

"The staff is very thorough," said Vicki Johnson, manager of Fisher House. "And we need to be, because these families rely on us. On average, people stay about six days. The longest stay we had was a family from Florence who stayed for 10 months."

Since the pandemic arrived in South Carolina in March, Fisher House has put up more 122 families. 

"It's a very safe haven," Vaught said. "And they take all the precautions to make it comfortable for us in times like this."

Charleston Fisher House

Vicki Johnson, manager of the Fisher House, explains the contents of a bag given to guests during the coronavirus pandemic. Brad Nettles/Staff

Nearly 2,000 families have stayed at Fisher House since it opened in 2018 for more than 8,000 nights of lodging. With the average price of a hotel room being about $120, it has amounted to more than $1 million in savings.

There's also a sharing of stories. In each of the rooms is a small journal on a desk. Guests are encouraged to write  in it as their family members are receiving treatment. Some of the entries are sad, and talk about the hardships they face when a loved one is getting treatment. But there is also a glimmer of gratitude and thankfulness for being able to stay at the Fisher House, too.

"If I was not so worried about my husband, I would have thought I was on vacation," a guest wrote in one of the journals in July.

Hutchinson said he hopes a major letter-writing campaign, and the upcoming holiday, will encourage people to donate to the nonprofit that helps run Fisher House.

Financial worries aside, he knows they won't turn away anyone soon.

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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