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Many from MIT open homes to families of hospital patients

Last October, Pam and Harvey Lodish were planning a winter vacation, juggling his busy schedule as a professor at the Whitehead Institute and her responsibilities as a project management consultant and school board member in Brookline.

At the same time, Diana and Gordon Reid were watching helplessly and praying as teams of doctors in Albany, NY, performed a series of operations on their first child, a boy, born prematurely at 24 weeks on October 22. He weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces and developed necrotizing entercolitis within several days of birth. Baby Evan had a colostomy involving removal of 20 percent of his large intestine when he was five days old. The doctors gave him less than a 10 percent chance of living. After the third major surgery, the doctors advised that Evan's best chance of survival was at Children's Hospital in Boston.

Ms. Reid, a secretary at the State University of New York at Albany, had been back at her job for two weeks after maternity leave when she found herself leaving with a very ill baby for a prolonged stay in Boston. Using all her vacation, sick leave and personal time, separated from her husband during the week, and having only her mother-in-law in the area (in Sturbridge, MA, out of commuting distance to Boston), she needed a place to stay to be near her baby.

Just before Christmas, the Lodishes got a call from the Hospitality Program, for which they are volunteer hosts. Could they accommodate a young mother with a very sick baby? "Sure, no problem," said Ms. Lodish. Ms. Reid arrived several days after Christmas, shy, determined and afraid.

The Hospitality Program was founded in 1983 when Joan Biggers, a patient representative at Brigham and Women's Hospital, decided something had to be done to help out-of-town families who had been sleeping on floors, in nurse's closets or in their cars to be close to family members undergoing prolonged treatment at Boston hospitals. Ms. Biggers organized an informal group whose members volunteered to open their homes and extra bedrooms to those in need.

MIT alumni/ae, faculty and staff were involved from the start. In 1990, the group hired a director, Lisa Tener (SB '84, SM), and volunteers appeared to help in all sorts of ways, including Thomas Russell (SM '89), who created the program's Web site.

Hosts and donors

The late Dr. Thomas Markert, a principal research scientist in the Center for Space Research who died last summer, was a host. In fact, he and his wife Angie bought a bigger house in 1993 to be able to accommodate more guests. More than 160 donations were made to the Hospitality Program in his name, 61 of them from MIT colleagues.

Other MIT host families include Professor John B. Heywood of mechanical engineering and his wife Peggy; Gretchen Kappelmann (administrative secretary in the Department of Chemistry) and her husband Fred; Blossom Hoag, administrative secretary in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy; and various alumni/ae, many of whom are also key donors.

The Lodishes have been hosting for more than 10 years, starting when Professor Lodish read about the program in the Boston Globe. They have lost track of how many guests have stayed with them.

"It feels good to be doing this," Ms. Lodish said. "We have lovely guests. I mean really nice people, wonderful and gentle. They are often overwhelmed by the illness, and the idea of staying with a stranger--they can't imagine it. But this way, there's someone to check in on you. It's easy." Guests are responsible for their own meals and transportation, though they have kitchen privileges, she noted.

"One young woman from Iowa came for three months with a sick child, then went home at Thanksgiving," Ms. Lodish recalled. "On New Year's Eve she was flown back to Children's Hospital with her critically ill child in an air ambulance, and she stayed with us until Easter. She really became a part of the family, and I know we changed her life. The poor girl's father had a stroke while she was here with her child. We got her a plane ticket (Harvey had lots of frequent-flier miles) and sent her home. Otherwise she wouldn't have had one last chance to see him before he died."

Ms. Reid, their most recent guest, stayed for three months (her husband Gordon joined her on weekends). Pam and Harvey Lodish could not have been more enthusiastic about Diana.

"She's so thoughtful, so sensitive to our needs," Ms. Lodish said. "She's not intrusive in our lives at all. She even brought her own TV to have in her room."

Mrs. Reid said her hostess is "like a third grandma." The families plan to remain in touch. Pam was at Children's Hospital at 7am the morning Evan was discharged, taking pictures for a scrapbook marking his journey to health.

Referral method

The Reids, like other families in need of help, were referred to the Hospitality Program by medical professionals. The program accepts only guests referred by those who have personal knowledge of them, and believe the guests to be responsible, considerate and independent.

Since 1983, the Hospitality Program has provided accommodations for 55,000 nights, meeting 6,400 requests. In 1996, more than 5,000 guest nights were provided in response to 550 requests. Most of the Lodishes' guests have stayed for anywhere from a few days to a week or two.

The hosts in many cases simply give a set of keys to their guests, and may or may not offer kitchen privileges and/or share meals. In many cases, such as with the Lodishes and the Reids, hosts and guests become like family and maintain their relationship after the medical emergency is over.

Almost one-third of the Hospitality Program's funding comes from donations by guests or others who've come in contact with the program in some way. Another 22 percent is provided by hospitals and medical centers, and 14 percent is donated by churches and temples (the program receives free office space from the Episcopal diocese). The remainder comes from corporations and trusts and through fundraising.

The Hospitality Program is non-profit and does not charge fees, although it relies on donations from guests and others to ensure that the next person in need can be accommodated. Many hosts provide accommodations without cost; some seek reimbursement for household expenses. Hosts may request up to $15 a night for one person and $5 for each additional person.

"We are connected, we really are connected--we want to be," said Ms. Tener, the director. "When we hear of people taking a risk--both hosts and guests--it's inspiring and moving."

The Hospitality Program at 138 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02111, can be reached by e-mail at , on the Web at <> or by telephone at 482-4338.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 3, 1997.

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