Yesterday I toured American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Minneapolis. It was the first time I had been there since my mom passed away.

Hope Lodges are owned and operated by the American Cancer Society and provide out-of-town cancer patients a place to live while receiving cancer treatment. About 18 months ago, my mom was to begin 6.5 weeks of daily head and neck radiation. She lived 70 miles away from the treatment site at the University of Minnesota. Driving back and forth for treatment would have been impossible, especially after the first week or so, when the side effects were unpleasant and the fatigue became overwhelming.

The oncologist’s nurse told my mom that there was a place she and a caregiver could stay, at no charge, when she was receiving treatment in Minneapolis. It was called Hope Lodge. The Lodge has 41 rooms and is almost always full. But there was room for us. We couldn’t believe it. A place to stay, for free? It sounded too good to be true.

But the reality was even better. When we checked in on the first day, we immediately felt welcomed. One of the employees, Ryan, gave us a tour and conducted orientation. He made us laugh at a time when we were scared and needed to chuckle. He showed us that while this was a scary time, we could still have fun.

Within a few hours, we had made some friends. Some were from rural Minnesota and some from as far away as Japan and Belgium. One couple had come months ago, expecting to stay for a week. Several months later, they were still there. Before long, we had friends to sit with during meals and hear how their days were going. We even began running into people we knew from Hope Lodge at the hospital or cancer clinic! In a matter of days we went from being outsiders to feeling like we belonged, thanks to Hope Lodge.

One evening, several of us were done eating dinner. We hand washed our dishes and loaded them into the dish sanitizer. Several of us stood around the dish sanitizer, waiting for it to be done, so we could dry our dishes and put them away. We chatted and laughed, holding our damp dish towels. One man was there because he had to have all of his crumbled teeth removed after lots of jaw radiation. Nobody knew what the future had in store for them, but right then, we were as comfortable and as whole as we could be. That moment was all we had and it was all we needed.

After seeing how Hope Lodge could transform a scary experience into one of love, support and healing, I began to wonder why we didn’t have a one in Sioux Falls. Sioux Falls has two large, rural health systems that both have impressive cancer treatment centers. There must be tons of out-of-town patients that need a home-away-from-home. It seemed like the perfect location. I wanted to help bring a Hope Lodge to Sioux Falls.

A few weeks later, I called the American Cancer Society’s 1-800 number and asked if I could talk to somebody about bringing a Hope Lodge to Sioux Falls. The customer service representative said, “Um…I’m going to have to have somebody call you back about that.” The next day, the local office was in touch with me and the wheels were set in motion.

We’ve made tremendous progress in the last 18 months. While we are not yet an official Hope Lodge capital campaign, we’ve gotten a lot done, too many things to list here. We have a fantastic volunteer Task Force, ACS team, and consultant working on reaching our 2016 milestones. I’ve also learned that both Health Systems, along with ACS, have done an admirable job of meeting the needs of patient housing in Sioux Falls for years. The systems, volunteers, community and donors have long recognized this need. Bringing a Hope Lodge to Sioux Falls would be an extension of this effort.

Part of this effort included touring the Hope Lodge yesterday with our consultant, so she could see first-hand a Hope Lodge in action.

Me, Cindy Peterson (our consultant) and Tim Torgerson from ACS at Hope Lodge yesterday

Me, Cindy Peterson (our consultant) and Tim Torgerson from ACS at Hope Lodge yesterday

Tuesday night, the night before the tour, I woke up at 4 a.m. with a rare headache. Part of me dreaded going to the Hope Lodge again. I had only been there with my mom and we had had maybe the best times of our life together there. All of a sudden, we knew her life might be shorter than we had hoped, so we were motivated to make the most of it. We had lots of time to visit, laugh, read, and be together. In regular adult life, one doesn’t often get prolonged periods of time together with a parent. Regular life gets in the way. When one gets cancer, regular life stops. We savored our time and looked at each other with appreciation and amazement.

I decided to take the tour one moment at a time. As we walked in, the place didn’t look like I remembered it. It felt darker, probably because she wasn’t there.

Other than that, things mostly looked the same. We visited all of the floors, saw a guest room (bedspreads are now blue and brown, not pink and purple), went into my favorite, sunny TV lounge (side table has been moved away from the windows) and swung by the dining area (new hardwood floor). I was asked how it felt to be there and had to respond that I couldn’t really think about it. I felt kind of like a robot.

The tour wrapped up and I was relieved to get into my car. I was stunned, but didn’t know it. I got lost trying to find the freeway, a route I’ve taken many times. My mind and heart were elsewhere.

After crying a bit on the drive home, I started to feel like myself again. I wish I had never needed to be a guest at Hope Lodge. However, I’m also deeply grateful that I was. I’m even more grateful to be working on bringing one to Sioux Falls.

A Hope Lodge in Sioux Falls will give thousands of cancer patients the opportunity to experience what my mom, sisters and I felt. I can’t think of a bigger gift to give to someone. Thank you, Hope Lodge. And thank you, Mom.