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Lodge near Oakland VA for veterans' families 'is like a 4-star hotel'

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 3:01 p.m.
Veterans Affairs leadership was on hand Tuesday December 4, 2012 for the dedication of a 9,500-square-foot, 10-bedroom Fisher House at the VA’s University Drive Campus in Oakland. This Fisher House will be the first in Pennsylvania and one of more than 58 in the United States. Fisher Houses provide free, temporary lodging for families of military members and veterans receiving care at VA facilities. They’re meant to relieve financial burdens for military families and create a support system during times of crisis. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Elaine Tomlin was ready to cram into a hotel with two relatives just to be near her sister in the Oakland VA hospital.

A surprise alternative, she discovered, “is like a four-star hotel.”

“This was a dream, a gift — a Christmas gift,” Tomlin, 54, of Philadelphia said in one of 10 airy suites in the Fisher House at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System's University Drive Campus.

Open since Nov. 26, the $5.5 million lodge offers free accommodations for families of veterans receiving care at the hospital. Groups such as the American Legion, corporate sponsors and other contributors paid for the home, which includes a communal kitchen, private rooms and Pittsburgh-themed artwork on the hospital grounds.

VA and Fisher House Foundation officials on Tuesday celebrated the opening, turning attention away from the fatal Legionnaires' outbreak that has rattled the hospital since late November. VA leaders would not speak about the outbreak during a couple hours of tours and events, a spokesman said.

“I didn't wear the uniform, so this is my way of serving,” said Ken Fisher, CEO of the Maryland-based Fisher House Foundation. “We just feel that ‘Thanks for your service' isn't enough anymore, that while they're nice words, they need to be backed up with deeds.”

The foundation has supported the development of 58 Fisher Houses worldwide since its inception about 21 years ago. Fisher said the house in Oakland is the first in Pennsylvania, positioned in Pittsburgh on guidance from the VA and Department of Defense.

The VA has taken ownership of the house and will cover key operating expenses, although that figure was not available. Fundraisers will help support other expenses, such as kitchen supplies.

Planning and fundraising for the Pittsburgh facility ran about six years, said house manager Michael Clark. He said VA workers contributed to the effort during the past three years.

Fisher said he knows of no other Fisher Houses planned in Pennsylvania. The next one slated for opening is in San Antonio.

Hospital officials have declared the Oakland campus clear of Legionella bacteria; the outbreak was announced on Nov. 16. They lifted water-use restrictions there late last week, though restrictions remain in place at the VA's H.J. Heinz Campus near Aspinwall.

One of five Legionnaires' cases tied to the Oakland outbreak might be linked to the Heinz facility, where tests found the waterborne bacteria, but “there is a very high probability it occurred” at the Oakland campus, spokesman David Cowgill has said.

Five patients were sickened, and hospital officials have confirmed one death from the outbreak. Separate tests may show whether four employees who developed respiratory problems contracted Legionnaires' from the hospital water supply.

Cowgill said the VA is not reviewing other cases for possible links to the outbreak.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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