10 Lessons Learned With the Heart: Warrior Families at Fisher House

  • Courtesy of Fisher House
    Courtesy of Fisher House

When you are the manager of one of the 64 Fisher House locations throughout the country, your job is to make sure that that the home is operational, clean and inviting for every one of the 22,000 wounded, ill or injured service member families per year who stay at a Fisher House during their treatment.

You know you are expected to go above and beyond for your guests. For this, you get a paycheck, a little insurance and some of the most unexpected benefits I've ever heard of.

Fisher House managers from around the country share some of the lessons they've learned from these military families.

1. Battle fear with a "we."

Fear and uncertainty are part of the lives of families seeking help for their wounded, ill or injured service members. A Fort Belvoir Fisher House manager remembers a young Marine spouse who had many questions about her husband's inpatient treatment and very few answers.

"I kept saying, 'Don't worry. We will figure this out.' We walked to the Family Center and asked questions. We wrote down questions to ask the doctors and nurses. We wrote out questions to ask the Marine Corps. One day, Kory turned to me with tears in her eyes. [She said] 'Your answers always start with WE.' I really didn't understand what she was trying to say until she shared that she was never alone on this journey because WE could figure out anything."

2. Family is more than a bloodline.

At Fisher House, managers pride themselves on the knowledge that you walk in a stranger and walk out as family. "Our families come from all walks of life and from all over the world," wrote Janet Grampp, manager of the Joint Base Andrews Fisher House in Maryland. "But when they get to Fisher House, they are ONE family. They take care of each other, cook for each other, give each other rides. They are connected."

That connection is often more than these managers had originally expected from people who don't share DNA.

"Family isn't defined by blood, but rather by the bonds formed from the support of others," wrote Heather Frantz of the Pittsburgh Fisher House. "I have seen so many individuals enter this house feeling alone, scared and lost -- those are the people that end up becoming a part of our family here and are the first to support the next scared person who crosses our threshold."

3. True givers always find a way.

Sometimes, those you would expect to need the most assistance are the most giving. At the Travis Air Force Base Fisher House in California, they were already worried about how a legally blind guest would manage. They also had a guest in an electric wheelchair whose hands were so arthritic that he could barely open his room door.

"The blind man 'adopted' the other man, and he cooked for him and made sure he got his three meals a day, and helped him in so many other ways," remembered Charlene Hall, manager of Travis Fisher House.

Other managers also had stories of true givers who understood the meaning of putting others before themselves.

"I had a guest who was so sick she could barely walk down the hallway to the kitchen," Grampp said. "But every day while she made that shuffle, she would make a detour into my office. She would say, 'I think you need a hug today.' She passed away two years ago, and that memory still brings me tears of joy."

4. Offer people what they want -- not what you want them to have.

"I've learned that each guest is unique in what they expect and/or desire during their stay at a Fisher House," said Ron Gribble of Eglin Fisher House in Florida. "Some guests just want you to lend an ear, to listen to them about their illness or even their family. Others show a desire to help out, whether it's pulling weeds in the gardens or purchasing food items as a pay-it-forward act. The key is being able to read each and every guest, and in turn, understand and meet their individual needs and expectations."

5. Watch out for bears.

At the Alaska Fisher House, the staff has had to learn to look before heading to the parking lot in case the local black bears, porcupines and moose are visiting. But this lesson about dangerous wildlife can also apply to some of the people who consider themselves "family" of the wounded, ill or injured service member.

"Things are NOT always what they seem," says Wendy Carlston, manager of Fort Campbell Fisher House in Kentucky. "What's true for one family isn't true for another." Developing a little situational awareness is an important part of the job.

6. Gratitude changes everything.

In a time of crisis, so many Fisher House guests and employees develop a resolve not to take anything for granted. They note and tell about the little things like, "He sat up today." Or "She was able to take sips of water." Or, "He could move his foot today." And even, "The doctor says we can go home!"

Elizabeth St. Pierre, manager of the Boston Fisher House, remembers how a guest once wrote a thank you note that read, Gratitude changes everything.

"I learned to notice things to be grateful for in my own life, every day," St. Pierre said.

7. Hugs can express feelings when words fail.

At Fisher House, sometimes the lessons learned are hard ones -- how to say goodbye with courage and dignity. How to laugh and cry at the same time.

"Sometimes, there are no words, and in those moments, a sincere hug speaks volumes," Carlston said.

"There is unspoken power in a hug. It is the best answer to so many situations," said Vanniecia Brown, manager of Jefferson Barracks Fisher House in St. Louis, Mo. "[A hug] has said to many of our guests here, 'I can't fix it, but we are here. We understand and we care.' This act of pure love from one human heart to another says: You are not alone."

8. Never underestimate the grateful heart of a child.

While her grandpa was staying at the Jefferson Barracks Fisher House, a grade-schooler named Jaylan promised Brown that she would do a donation drive for Fisher House in honor of what they had done for her grandparents.

"She kept her word and shortly after the funeral, she showed up with her grandmother [Carmen] and her mom [Cassie], and they arrived at the Fisher House with a huge truckload full of supplies," Brown said. With the $30 she had leftover, Jaylan bought gift cards for Fisher House families. "Never underestimate the determination and a grateful heart of a child."

9. Always wonder at the magic of babies.

Babies bring their own magic to a Fisher House. "We just recently had a baby here for about two months, and some of our guests and myself would navigate to the kitchen each morning when he made his appearance for our daily dose of 'baby therapy,' " Frantz said.

"Holding a baby just makes everything better! A child's laughter can magically transform a house."

Babies can also help make sense of the transition between life and death. At the Fort Belvoir Fisher House, they still remember a sergeant major who was in the final months of his battle with cancer. He was holding on because his twin was expecting a child and he wanted to see his niece.

"When his twin sister arrived from Atlanta, the due date was still a week or so away," says a Virginia-based Fisher House manager. "After a short visit, the twins realized that Baby Mattie wanted to be born on her own schedule. Baby Mattie arrived in time to meet her Uncle Mathew, and after a short meet and greet, the sergeant major returned home having met his namesake. The miracles of life and the journey home happen every day. I have learned to appreciate each and every one of them."

10. Chocolate heals.

Some of the lessons of a Fisher House manager are completely practical. Peroxide is a great stain remover. Not everything that comes out of the dishwasher is clean. You must water plants to keep them alive. Also, chocolate heals.

"You may not be able to make it all better, but having a box of tissues on hand and a chocolate dish in reach does in fact help!" Frantz said.

BONUS: There are still a lot of generous and caring people in this world.

Brown sometimes wonders what founders Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher would think of the houses they endowed. " I often leave the Fisher House with the thought that I am a part of someone's legacy. All because two people cared for others," she said.

"There are still a lot of generous and caring people in the world," says Jenny Hall, manager of the Alaska Fisher House. Some of them are staying at Fisher House right now.

And if you ask me, some of those remarkably generous and caring people are working there right now.

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