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SALT LAKE CITY — Five years ago, Matt Helmke was in the fight for his life against one of the most formidable medical foes.
After experiencing headaches for some time, Helmke was diagnosed in 2012 with a rare, fast-growing form of brain cancer that doctors said would kill him in about six months without aggressive chemotherapy treatment.
“They gave me a (computed tomography) scan, immediately saw something and flew me to (University Hospital),” he said Wednesday. “The (found) a large tumor the size of a Ping-Pong ball in my brain.”
He underwent emergency surgery to remove the tumor and then endured six months of grueling chemotherapy. He spent much of that time being treated at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Originally from Elko, Nevada, Helmke, 39, served fours years in the U.S. Navy as an aircraft electrician — the same job his father held as a seaman 30 years earlier. When it came time for his family to visit during his treatment, they were hard-pressed to find affordable accommodations. After asking around, they found Fisher House, which turned out a to be a blessing in more ways than one.
Established in 1990 by New York real estate investor and philanthropist Zachary Fisher and his wife, Elizabeth, the Fisher House Foundation today operates a network of over 70 homes where families can stay free of charge while a loved one receives medical treatment. The facilities are located at major U.S. military and Veterans Administration medical centers nationwide.
“If you think about what Ronald McDonald houses do for children (by) allowing the family to be there when the child is going through a medical crisis, we do the same thing (for military families),” said David Coker, president of Fisher House Foundation. The homes are places of refuge and support to veterans caring for sick loved ones or the families of veterans who are battling illness.
This month, Fisher House Salt Lake City, 690 S. Valdez Drive, is celebrating its five-year anniversary. Since its opening, more than 7,000 families and over 15,000 individuals have taken advantage of the facility, said manager Quinn Kiger-Good.
“Most of our families come from small, rural towns. So they’re traveling a great distance,” she explained. “The fact that now their families can come and accompany them really means the world.”
She said the 16,800-square-foot home includes 20 suites, each with private bedrooms and baths. The houses also have common areas that promote interaction between the families.
“The best part of my job is watching the families cook together, cry together or have coffee together. They are the ones who need this home and support each other. It’s pretty powerful,” Kiger-Good said.
The idea behind Fisher House, she said, is to provide families a place to feel at home during otherwise trying times.
“They’re not here because they want to be here, but because they have to be here,” she said.
While constructed through the charitable foundation, the facility is maintained heavily through community donations and volunteer support, Kiger-Good explained.
“While they’re here, they cook for themselves, pick up after themselves and come and go as they need to,” she said. “But (sometimes) you have community groups that come in and make meals for the families. To not have to come home from a long day at the hospital and think about what to cook for themselves, it means the world to them.”
Meanwhile, after undergoing months of cancer treatment, Helmke was given a clean bill of health. He said having Fisher House available to his family was “amazing.”
“People volunteering to cook you dinner and people donating tickets to (events) for families,” he said. “There are always such good things going on here.”
Six months after treatment, in September 2013, Helmke was motivated to show how much he had recovered and he embarked on a epic trek across his native Nevada — backpacking 457 miles over 23 days.
“It was 100 degrees when I started (in south Lake Tahoe) and 23 days later, it was snowing when I finished in Wendover,” he said with a chuckle. “I raised a few thousand dollars and gave $1,000 to Fisher House and $1,000 to Relay for Life (for cancer research).”
He said he hoped to inspire others who found themselves fighting cancer.
“It started out to just prove to myself and other people that I was better (after cancer),” Helmke said. “But it became so much more than that — helping people and families who were dealing with it. To give them hope so they know they can get better.”