Above and Beyond

Above and Beyond

By Megy Karydes

Learning that someone you love has cancer often unleashes a whirlwind of emotions from fear to anger. Then reality hits: You need to figure out how to take care of, and provide support for, your loved one, or, if you’re the one diagnosed, you have to start searching for answers. The last thing you want to worry about once you’re in treatment is where you and your loved ones will be staying or how everyone will handle those expenses.

Two Chicago nonprofits bridge the gap with peer mentoring and affordable guest housing. No two people go through a diagnosis the same way, and these two unique organizations offer important options to help the patients get what they need so they can concentrate on just one thing: getting healthier.

IMD Guest House was founded in response to a critical need for affordable and secure accommodations for families and friends of patients receiving inpatient treatment at any institutions within the Illinois Medical District (IMD). These accommodations come as fully furnished apartments to families of children and adult patients 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“Family members would often camp out in hospital rooms because they wanted to be near their loved ones,” says Michael Mayse, executive director of IMD Guest House. “The IMD Guest House is directly across the street from Stroger Hospital and within a short walk of the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System and Rush University Medical Center.”

What began with a handful of single student residence rooms in a University of Illinois building has since grown to 16 with the hopes of raising it to 30 by the end of this year. Each of the rooms is sponsored by one of the IMD participating hospitals and organizations such as the John and Editha Kapoor Charitable Foundation. Guests are referred by the participating hospitals.

“Studies have shown that when family and friends are there to provide support to their loved ones, the [health] outcomes are better,” says Mayse. “Patients are more compliant with instructions, they are better able to take care of themselves because they and their loved ones have been part of the process, and often, there are fewer follow-up visits.” Financially it’s advantageous, too, since shorter stays in the hospital mean fewer expenses in the long run.

“We’re the only adult facility of our kind in Chicago,” adds Mayse. “To stay in a hotel near the medical district costs about $185, plus $35 for parking a night. We charge based on a sliding scale, but no one pays more than $55 a night, and no one will be turned away because of [the] inability to pay.”

The true cost of each room is about $105 per night, but the organization is able to reduce the cost, thanks in part to hospital sponsorship. Mayse is also quick to point out that its unique partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) allows the organization to keep costs down.

“We have a unique partnership with UIC in which they provide the staff to help us check in guests; their cleaning staff cleans the rooms to very high standards; and their tradesmen build things for us or fix things when they break. Without that assistance, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish what we do on a daily basis.”

Mayse and his team give tours of the rooms two to three times a week for prospective guests, and many schedule stays in advance. “[Patients] having [a] complicated surgical procedure[s] know when they’ll be coming, so they’ll book their [stays] with us,” he says. “We also have international guests who fly in to see our outstanding specialists. We truly are part of the medical district’s services.”

Donations are accepted to help IMD Guest House assist the families it serves and purchase things such as bed linens and furniture. Volunteers often host pillow drives, prepare welcome baskets for guests or make follow-up calls to survey guests on their experience.

No one wants to hear that they have cancer, nor do they think it will happen to them. Yet, at 26, Jonny Imerman, seemingly healthy, working full time and attending graduate school at nights, learned that he had testicular cancer. His world changed that instant.

Imerman went on to fight his disease with the help and support of family and friends. But he wondered: What if every cancer fighter could talk to a cancer survivor, who not only had beaten the same type of cancer, but who also was the same gender and around the same age as the fighter? He considered the cancer survivor to be an angel—walking, living proof that the fighter could win, too.

He founded Imerman Angels as a matchmaking process of sorts. It carefully brings together a person touched by cancer with someone who has fought and survived the same type of the disease.

Caregivers get the same treatment, says Imerman, who considers himself Chief Mission Officer of the organization that bears his name. “If it’s a husband caring for his wife, we’ll connect him with another husband,” he notes. “If it’s a mother caring for her child, we’ll connect her with another mother. Cancer doesn’t just affect the person going through it. It affects the caregivers, too.”

Imerman calls the approach peer-to-peer matching and wants people to know that they have someone walking side by side as well as forward together. And geography is not an obstacle to a match.

He shares the story of Joel and Scotty, who both had stage-3 testicular cancer and were living in different cities. Both underwent chemotherapy, fought the disease and became great friends during the process. Recently they left home to meet up for a week’s vacation to snowboard and have a little fun.

The organization has more than 4,000 cancer survivors and 1,500 caregivers in its network who volunteer to be matched in all 50 states and 60 countries. Imerman’s office fields more than 100 calls every week from families, and that number is only increasing.

According to Imerman, 1.6 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer over the next year, and his biggest obstacle is finding ways of letting them know that Imerman Angels is here to help them every step of the way.

He travels around the country regularly speaking about Imerman Angels, and while many doctors, nurses and cancer centers know about the organization, they don’t always remember to tell their patients about the free service. And this is where he relies heavily on his volunteers to help him get the word out.

“Runners are a great source of funding for us since they run and raise money on our behalf, but we need more people to just let others know we exist,” he adds. “Sign up to become a volunteer online, buy a T-shirt and wear it to the gym, attend one of our local events, email your friends, and add it to your Facebook page. All of these things help us spread the word.”

“No one should have to face fighting cancer alone,” Imerman says. “Survivors care, and we can help.”