The comforts of home

Ellis Fischel’s Wyatt Guest House offers shelter to patients who travel
Monday, August 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:03 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Gloria Simmons immediately felt at home when she first visited the Ernest & Eugenia Wyatt Guest House, and that’s the whole idea.

Simmons, who lives at the Lake of the Ozarks, receives radiation treatment for cancer of the lymph nodes every day at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. Her home is 87 miles from Columbia and she is constantly tired because of her treatments.

“The radiation zaps me,” said Simmons, who is scheduled to leave the guest house soon after a five-week stay. “I usually come over and have to take a nap afterwards. I may not have made it home if I had to drive.” Simmons, 46, said she could not have afforded the time or cost of gas involved in driving to and from home for treatment every day.

Guest houses such as Wyatt are becoming more common and can provide an important oasis for cancer patients, health officials said.

“Everything around them is spiraling out of control,” said Ed Johnson, a spokesman with the Health Initiatives program in the Columbia office of the American Cancer Society. “They have some sense of security.”

The 12-bedroom guest house on the west end of the Ellis Fischel campus provides a comfortable place to stay for patients who drive a long distance for treatment at the center. Most travel an average of 50 miles or more, said Jennifer Coffman, media relations coordinator for the University of Missouri Health Care system.

“We try to be a place of refuge for them, so they can concentrate on getting better,” said Janet Turnbull, coordinator of the guest house.

Orange, yellow and pink flowers brighten the front entrance of the house, which has the look of an oversized bed and breakfast. Patients, most of whom are senior citizens, are referred to the guest house by Ellis Fischel social services, which sets the rates on a sliding scale, depending on the patient’s ability to pay.

Each room, except for two handicap-equipped rooms, has two double beds, so family members can share the room if needed.

Staying at the guest house limits driving time and the cost of gas and hotels for patients. It also provides a friendly environment where cancer patients can share their experiences, Turnbull said.

A patient’s stay ranges from a couple of days to more than a month, depending on treatment. Most patients arrive on Sundays and depart on Fridays, returning to their homes for the weekend. The house is normally full Monday through Wednesday and has half the rooms occupied on Thursdays and Fridays. Ellis Fischel patients receive priority, but if there is space, family members of patients staying in the University Hospital and Clinics may rent rooms. Children younger than 12 are not permitted to stay overnight.

Since opening in September 2001, the house has served more than 1,500 guests. As knowledge of the house spreads, the number of guests per year has been increasing. The house provided shelter to approximately 400 guests in the past year.

“Guest houses are becoming more popular as the health system looks at the whole picture of treating a patient,” Turnbull said. Patients are able to leave a hospital more promptly after surgery if they are able to go to a guest house. A patient may not need medical attention after the surgery but may not be ready to drive home. The Wyatt guest house does not have any medical staff, but there is a house staff member available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the event of an emergency.

The guest house also provides a serene environment for patients receiving routine cancer treatments or preparing for surgery.

Turnbull spoke of the daughter of a man who was staying in the guest house the night before his early morning surgery. The daughter thanked Turnbull because the house provided her father with a tranquil environment where he could listen to a CD, relax and mentally prepare for his surgery.

Each bedroom has cable TV, a private phone and voice mail. A housekeeper does the basic cleaning in each room. Patients have access to common areas that include a laundry facility, kitchen, living room, library and screened-in porch.

Patients prepare their own food, some of which is donated by the community, in the kitchen. Patients sometimes share food with one another as a comforting gesture. One man recently brought in two dozen tomatoes from his garden.

Simmons especially enjoyed sitting on the house’s porch when the temperature cooled, and she said the layout of the house encouraged guests to sit together in the common areas.

“I thought it was great,” she said. “It felt like home.”

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