MILWAUKEE — When Kathy Vogel Kuettner was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999, her family and friends rallied around her.
As she was undergoing treatment at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, she had a constant stream of visits from her loved ones who lived nearby. But as she got to know her fellow cancer patients, she learned that not everyone had the same support system: Some were fighting their conditions all alone, as their families weren’t local and couldn’t afford to stay in Milwaukee during their treatment.
Though Vogel Kuettner passed away from cancer after a yearlong battle, her family has kept her memory alive through Kathy’s House — a nonprofit hospital guest home that offers patients and their families a place to stay near the hospital. And after two decades, Kathy’s House has moved into a new, expanded and updated home.
“We want to be that other side, even when people are far away from home, to give that patient and their caregiver the best shot at responding to whatever crisis is going on,” said Patty Metropulos, the president and CEO of Kathy’s House.
The “New Home for Healing,” located right on the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center campus, opened its doors to its first guests last week.
With the new space, Kathy’s House has doubled its capacity to 36 available guest rooms, to help meet a growing demand for housing. And it’s a “much more sophisticated building,” Metropulus said, with design features meant to help support patients’ health and wellbeing.
The hope is that Kathy’s House can provide guests with more than just a place to sleep, she said.
“We know we can never duplicate home,” Metropulos said. “But we want people to feel the comforts of home.”
New and improved
Opening the new home has been a bright spot after a tough year. During the pandemic, Kathy’s House (in its old location) had to cut down its capacity to allow for social distancing, scale back to a “skeleton staff” and turn away volunteers to reduce risk, Metropulos said.
Luckily, she said, the plans for the new home were already in place, and construction was still able to move forward on schedule after breaking ground about a year ago — with the help of a $6 million initial investment from Froedtert and nearly $6 million more from fundraising efforts.
The new home has updates to help keep guests safe and healthy. It’s fully ADA compliant, and has advanced air filtration and easy-to-clean surfaces for infection control, Metropulos said.
Maintaining an outbreak-free environment is really important for cancer patients, whose immune systems are suppressed as part of their treatment, she pointed out.
“It just helps keep them safer during this especially vulnerable time in their recovery,” Metropulos said.
Steve and Lisa Peters, who stayed at the former Kathy’s House location five years ago as Steve was undergoing treatment for lymphoma, said the attention to keeping guests healthy was a “godsend” for them.
The Peters family lives in Oshkosh — but with Steve’s immune system suppressed from chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, their options were limited. Though housing is “a piece of the puzzle you don’t really think of,” Steve said, it was a key factor to help him get his condition into remission.
“We couldn't have done it without them,” Lisa said. “Staying in a hotel was not an option, with the risk of germs and getting in contact with other diseases.”
Twelve of the rooms in the new home are part of a special wing for long-term or immunocompromised guests, which are designed so patients won’t have to venture into common spaces. The house also includes a patient services room, with plans to bring in medical staff to do blood draws and other basic procedures onsite rather than at the hospital.
In addition to serving guests’ medical needs, the Kathy’s House team also wanted to design a place that was peaceful and comfortable, Metropulos said. Many guests come from rural areas and smaller cities, she explained, and are facing the uncertainties of being in a big city on top of their health challenges.
The design team tried to bring in a lot of light and natural elements to the house — like wood finishes from the trees that were cut down in the construction process, and a series of wildlife shots donated by a doctor who doubles as a nature photographer. The courtyard area, which offers a patch of green space for guests to relax, is one of Metropulos’s favorite spots on the grounds.
“We're right smack dab in the middle of a busy medical campus, but what you hear are birds,” she said.
Addressing health equity
Providing an affordable place to stay is an important step toward health equity, said Dr. Malika Siker, a radiation oncologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin who is on the board of directors for Kathy’s House.
A lot of rural communities don’t have the same access to specialized care and equipment as those living in a city like Milwaukee, she explained. She’s seen cancer patients who need to get daily treatment at Froedtert for months at a time — but didn’t have a support system in the area, and couldn’t afford to relocate without a place like Kathy’s House.
“I can see firsthand how Kathy's House directly impacts the care of my patients," she said.
More than one-third of families who stay at Kathy’s House have a household income of less than $30,000 per year, according to guest surveys. While the house has set rates for its rooms, Metropulos said they work with families to make sure they can afford their stay, sometimes discounting up to 90% of the price.
And the need for Kathy’s House is only growing, Metropulos said.
With more people seeking care at Froedtert & MCW, and a shift toward outpatient care instead of long hospital stays, requests for lodging have risen 75% in recent years, Kathy’s House reports. Metropulos said they’ve had to turn away more than 1,200 guests in the past few years because they just didn’t have the space.
The Peters family, who recently visited the new home, said while they thought the new home was “beautiful,” they were most excited about the expanded capacity.
“Really the most important piece to me is, this is going to be able to help twice as many people,” Steve said. “I know the effect it’s going to have on people down the road, because of the effect it had on me.”
“The best in humanity”
Though facing a medical crisis is never easy, Steve said that the emotional support he felt during his stay at Kathy’s House made a big difference.
“When you’re in probably one of the most challenging times of your life," he said, "you need all the positives you can get.”
Having family close by while going through his treatment, as well as a supportive staff to look after their needs, allowed him to focus on battling his cancer. And Lisa said she made “lifelong friendships” through connecting with other guests who were facing their own health crises.
Metropulos added that the sense of community between different guests is the home’s greatest asset. She recalled one couple who checked into the house, feeling nervous about an upcoming bone marrow transplant — and right away bumped into another family who had just undergone the same procedure.
“They’re surrounded by people who really get it,” Metropulos said.
Siker pointed out that wellbeing is important to overall health. So providing a warm environment for families — whether that means throwing a baby shower for a soon-to-be mom after her cancer treatment, or offering meals cooked by local volunteer groups so caregivers don’t have to worry about dinner — can really help them weather a medical crisis.
Metropulos said she’s excited to see how the new Kathy’s House can help fill a need for more families moving forward. And already, she’s found it rewarding to see how people came together to make the home possible — from the Eagle Scout who built the patio furniture, to her next-door neighbor who donated a copier, to the “army of volunteers” who helped prepare the home to welcome new guests.
“People just rally together and support one another,” Metropulos said. “I see the best in humanity when I’m here.”
Visit the Kathy's House website for more information about how to request a stay at Kathy's House, as well as how to donate or volunteer to support the home.