Patients seeking long-term treatment at Philadelphia's multitude of renowned specialty care centers might find no room at the inns this September, when a visit by Pope Francis during the World Meeting of Families is expected to bring hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the region.
Hospitals that rely on an organization that tries to find housing for such patients or their families are wringing their hands under the added pressure to find hosts for people who ordinarily could afford a hotel room.
"Many of these patients cannot choose their time to have treatments," said Rosana Tovar, a case worker at Shriners Hospital for Children. "Right now we're trying to figure out for that time in September when we'll have international patients and if we can help with accommodations."
Shriners, which provides specialized care to children with orthopedic problems, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft palates, has no housing of its own to offer patient families. The only other inexpensive option is area Ronald McDonald houses, but the demand for their housing there is far greater than the supply, Tovar said.
Hosts for Hospitals, a nonprofit that matches patients needing treatment far from home with homeowners willing to take them in, needs to grow quickly, executive director Mike Aichenbaum said.
While Pope Francis will only be in the city for two days, Sept. 26-27, the global meeting that is bringing him is expected to also fill hotel rooms the week before his visit, as well. Aichenbaum hopes to double his organization's base of 50 host families so sick people won't have to postpone critical care.
"When a family's in crisis, to have someone say, 'I don't know you, but welcome to my home' makes for a very profound experience for guests and hosts alike," Aichenbaum said. "I've had many guests tell me that the program has helped restore their faith in humanity."
Theresa Roberts, of Kalamazoo, Mich., spent most of June sharing the downtown Philadelphia home of Sue and Reinhard Kruse, paying Hosts for Hospitals $10 per night.
She spends most days receiving radiation therapy for an aggressive form of breast cancer at Thomas Jefferson University hospital. The Kruses are putting her up through Hosts for Hospitals.
"If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here right now," said Roberts, 45.
Aichenbaum and Nancy Wimmer started the not-for-profit Hosts for Hospitals in March 2000. Both have had health challenges that required out-of-town treatment that burdened their families with large out-of-pocket expenses.
Hosts for Hospitals works with patients of any age with any illness, unlike some other hospital housing programs. There is no limit on how many people can accompany the patient, and no limit on how long a family can stay. One host took in a family of seven with two brain-impaired children for 18 months.
Patients with intermittent needs—such as one day per week of treatment for a month—can also be accommodated.
Aichenbaum carefully matches patients with hosts, looking at personal preferences, personalities and possible problems. When there's an urgent need, Aichenbaum sends his hosts an email SOS. He usually finds a home within 48 hours.
Roberts will return to Philadelphia this month for a mastectomy. After that, she'll visit every three months. The Kruses want her back. There's something special about watching someone heal, Reinhard Kruse said.
"When it's over, you look into their eyes and they're well," he said. "That's wonderful. That's enough."