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  • Dani Fontanesi

The Opening of the La Jolla Family House

Many of you probably remember Craig Sager, the sports reporter with the wild outfits, huge personality, and gigantic heart who gave that incredible speech at the ESPYS a few years back. He was a legend and, as some might describe him, a "fashion luminary". He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia around the same time Matt was, and I remember Matt crying as he watched that speech. It was incredibly touching, and powerful, and inspiring, and it motivated him to keep fighting, to never give up.

Sadly, Craig lost his battle to leukemia, but his legacy and his message live on and continue to inspire people around the globe.

About a year or two ago, Matt and I were talking to Stacy (Craig's wife) at a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and I remember her telling us how heartbreaking it was to travel back and forth between MD Anderson in Texas, where Craig was being treated, to Atlanta, where they lived with their children. She said that when she would leave her kids to go see Craig, her son would say, "Mommy, please don't leave," and when she'd leave Craig to go back to her kids, he'd say, "Honey, please don't leave me." My heart was breaking as I listened to her story.

Matt and I were so lucky that we were never faced with that situation. I was able to stay by his side every. single. day. as we fought this terrible disease. But for so many patients dealing with cancer, or another life-threatening diagnosis, they don't have this luxury. They often have to travel to specialized treatment centers far from home, and it's incredibly difficult to relocate your life so you can get the life-saving treatment you need.

I remember very vividly the day that the doctors told Matt and I that Matt was finally stable enough to be discharged from the hospital the next day. "You can go home," the doctor said. What should have been words of celebration, instead filled us with fear. "Where do we go?" we thought. Our home was 7,000 miles away in New Zealand, which wasn't an option, and we had to be close to the hospital given Matt's vulnerable state and his need for daily treatment. We also had very strict living requirements. Everything had to be extremely clean and sanitary, we couldn't be around other people, and we needed a kitchen to make our own food. Matt was extremely immunocompromised for over a year -- meaning that exposure to germs or bacteria could be life-threatening (and indeed, over the next few years, we ended up in the hospital on more than one occasion when a cold or other bug put Matt in critical care).

We began desperately brainstorming our options. A hotel wouldn't work because we needed a place to cook all our meals, and we needed a kitchen a refrigerator large enough to store at least a week's worth of groceries. I couldn't leave Matt -- not even for an hour -- to go grocery shopping, so I'd need to be able to stock up on weekly groceries while a nurse or a family member stayed with him, and a mini-fridge in a hotel just wouldn't do. Plus, paying for a hotel just wasn't in our budget as we watched our savings slowly (or not-so-slowly) dissipate. Finding an apartment to rent near the hospital on a month-to-month basis was also outside our budget. We couldn't rent a room in a house because, for the most part, we couldn't be around other people and we needed our own kitchen.

We were getting desperate and running out of options when someone told us about this place called the Bannister Family Housing that was part of UCSD and offered a place for patients and families to stay during treatment. They had two apartments within walking distance from the hospital that were reserved for transplant patients who needed the resources that we did -- including a full kitchen and two bedrooms (one for the caregiver or family member to stay in, and/or for visiting family members). It was incredibly affordable, and the stars somehow aligned to allow a vacancy to open up right when we needed it. The Patient and Family Housing at UCSD Health will always have a special place in our hearts. It's where we spent our first Christmas as husband and wife.

We were so fortunate that the timing just happened to work out perfectly for us, but the truth is that two units just wasn't enough. There are so many patients and families in similar situations to ours -- needing to be close to the hospital but living in another city or another state or another country, and having nowhere to go.

So UCSD went to work solving the problem, and added 40 more, brand new, fully-furnished units to its patient and family housing! As described on UCSD's website, they strive to make UCSD a place for healing, not just a place for treatment:

As with our sister property, Bannister Family House in Hillcrest, our goal is to provide all the comforts of home: a place to sleep or rest, a kitchen to prep meals, a spot to do laundry, and community spaces where guests can interact with other families facing similar challenges.

Some of the most common feedback we receive from guests is how incredibly impactful it is to be surrounded by other people going through the same experience. We strive to do more than just meet our guests' physical needs; we aim to create a supportive retreat for families at the moment they need it most.

The La Jolla Family House will include:

  • 25 hotel-style guest rooms

  • 15 furnished two-bedroom apartments

  • Supportive services

  • Two day-rooms

  • Tranquility garden to inspire rest and rejuvenation during a stressful life event

Matt and I were so honored to be invited to speak at the opening of the La Jolla Family House this week where we spoke in front of some of the world's top doctors and executives and professional athletes and donors with buildings named after them -- all of whom have come together to make it possible for people like us to receive life-saving treatment without being separated from their families.

We are so grateful for the incredible generosity of the donors, supporters, and the leaders at UCSD Health who made this happen, including Denise Capozzi (Director, Family Houses at UC San Diego Health), Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, Carol Chang (UC San Diego Foundation Board), Lori Donaldson and Dr. Thomas Moore (UC San Diego Health Leadership), and Rolf Benirschke, an NFL legacy, inspirational human, and generous philanthropist. Thank you, all!

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