Fundraising for place to house some cancer patients during treatment begins

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The Texas Medical is a place of life-saving treatment for many patients who need care. At any time, hundreds of clinical trials, with the promise of medical breakthroughs, most of them involving cancer, are underway.

And yet, for cancer patients who travel from other cities, states and countries, there is a glaring void in the midst of so much.

Unlike 31 other cities in the US, Houston doesn't have a Hope Lodge. The lodge is funded by the American Cancer Society in each city. It is designed to give adult cancer patients, who have to travel more than 50 miles, a place to stay free of charge, while they undergo outpatient treatment, such as radiation of chemotherapy.

The American Cancer Society Houston is raising money to change that. A $30 million Hope Lodge is planned for a piece of property donated by MD Anderson for the project. But first, the money has to be raised.

Amira St. James and her husband are examples of people who could really use the help. Amira is a mother of two, who quit her job after she was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. It was in remission, then returned, in the form of bone cancer. She was referred to MD Anderson, where a clinical trial took away her back pain from the cancer. Now, cancer has been detected in her liver, she says, so she and her husband drive from Abilene every month for another round of treatment.

In February, during the height of rodeo season, she was unable to find a hotel room, at least one she could afford.

"The ones that did have rooms were asking $200 a night. We can't afford that on one income," she said.

Because of that, she delayed her cancer treatment.

Some people can't afford to pay for a hotel room, despite patient discounts.

Sandy Biggers is in charge of fundraising for Houston's American Cancer Society.

"I heard from a doctor who saw people sleeping in a car in a medical center parking garage. He knocked on the door to see if they were OK. They were living out of their car while a family member had their treatment. They had nowhere else to go," Biggers said.

Multiply that experience by many more, and you have the reason why a Hope Lodge is being proposed for Houston. President George H.W. Bush has signed on to chair the fundraising, along with Mrs. Bush. And they now have some generous company.

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair and his wife of more than 50 years, Janice, are offering to match half of the donations raised for the lodge, up to $4 million.

McNair, who underwent skin cancer treatment in the past year at MD Anderson, said he could see the financial needs of some of the patients.

"Houston is a generous city, a city with a great medical center. That we don't have one of these (lodges) here is kind of appalling," he said.

As for his matching donation pledge, "It's kind of payback," he said. "I hope it will speed this up, and we'll get some dirt turned soon."

It needs to happen quickly, before the end of the year. At least $7 million has to be raised for that groundbreaking to happen.

Back to the St. James family. They may not have money to spare, but they have dollars and quarters to add to the cause, and they have no problem asking others to do the same.

"It adds up," Amira said.

And the financial stress a Hope Lodge would remove from her family and others so they could concentrate entirely on healing: priceless.
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