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VOL. 126 | NO. 78 | Thursday, April 21, 2011

Home Away From Home

Harrah’s Hope Lodge offers respite for out-of-town cancer patients

By Aisling Maki

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Before the American Cancer Society’s Harrah’s Hope Lodge opened its doors in early December, some adult patients traveling to Memphis for cancer treatment slept in their cars or – even worse – forewent treatment altogether for lack of an affordable place to stay.

Valerie Morris, regional vice president of community affairs for Caesar’s Entertainment Mid-South, speaks to Linda Ward, left, and Cathy Scheafer during a monthly meal for cancer patients and families.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The lodge, at 718 Union Ave. directly east of Sun Studio, could be described as a Ronald McDonald House for adults, having so far provided about 70 patients with a comfortable, welcoming and, most importantly, free home-away-from-home while they receive cancer and cancer-related treatment at Memphis hospitals or oncology centers.

The facility is the only one of its kind in the area, and one of only 31 nationwide catering to adult cancer patients at no cost to them.

A 2003 needs assessment study by the Mid-South Division of the American Cancer Society determined that large numbers of adult patients were traveling to Memphis to receive cancer care, but there was no housing in place to accommodate them.

The Harrah’s Foundation, which is funded by the casino company Harrah’s Entertainment, donated $2 million for the construction of the facility and has provided ongoing support.

Memphis attorney and two-time cancer survivor Peter Pettit, who made a vow that if he was ever asked to do anything for ACS he would jump at the chance, participated in the fundraising campaign and serves on the board of directors for the Mid-South Division of the ACS.

Pettit said Valerie Morris, Harrah’s Mid-South community affairs vice president, was “extremely instrumental in going to the Harrah’s board and getting them to commit to this. What I like about Harrah’s is, not only did they give $2 million, but they also said they were going to help staff it and have provided volunteers. They even cook dinner at the lodge sometimes.”

Other donors include the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which donated the land, and the Plough Foundation and The Assisi Foundation of Memphis, each giving $1 million to the project.

Pettit said many local oncology groups donated six-figure gifts. He also said the Mid-South Division of the American Cancer Society, a six-state group, is in the process of setting up an endowment fund to help maintain such facilities, which Pettit said cost roughly $350,000 a year to operate.

While most patients who stay at Harrah’s Hope Lodge travel from rural areas and small towns of the Mid-South, some have made the journey from as far away as Illinois.

Dr. Matthew Wilson, an ocular surgeon at Methodist University Hospital and professor of ophthalmology at UT Hamilton Eye Institute, who specializes in cancers of the eye, has referred many patients to Harrah’s Hope Lodge.

He said specialized care is typically found in urban areas, requiring patients from smaller communities to travel, which is a tremendous physical and financial burden on cancer patients.

“You’re looking at eight nights of hotel cost in the time of an exceedingly tough economy in a part of the country that’s one of the poorest in the nation,” said Wilson, whose patients come from all over the Southeastern United States. “Those factors just make this resource all the more important to the patient.”

The first floor of Harrah’s Hope Lodge features communal dining, kitchens, library and recreational areas, while the second and third floors have a total of 40 suites for cancer patients and a guest/caregiver.

In addition, volunteers cook and serve meals, register guests, organize game nights, and transport patients to and from medical appointments by shuttle.

Harrah’s continues to find ways to give to the lodge. Once a month, Harrah’s staff members host a sit-down, catered dinner for patients and their families in the facility’s dining room. They also volunteer to host game nights and other activities.

Harrah’s Hope Lodge director Kim Culbreath said each room is given a binder describing recreational opportunities for caregivers and any patients who might feel up to heading out for a meal or touring neighboring Sun Studio.

“They’re so close to Downtown,” Culbreath said. “We’ve found a lot of the guests have never gotten out of their own small towns, so they don’t know much about the area. They can go next door and take a tour of Sun Studio, get on their bus to take a tour of Graceland if they’d like to. Of course, Elvis is always a draw.”

But most importantly, Harrah’s Hope Lodge provides camaraderie. Friendships are formed as patients and caregivers take comfort in the knowledge that they’re not alone in their fight against cancer.

“They come initially for this financial benefit, but they end up realizing they’re going through similar situations,” said Culbreath, herself a cancer survivor. “They start looking out for the other patients and checking on them. When they’re going through such a difficult time, they can be around other people who understand, and I think there’s healing in that.”

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