Debra Harvey of Union County is disabled and living on a fixed income, so there was no money to spare when her critically ill sister began an indefinite stay last month at Carolinas Medical Center for a massive intestinal infection.
Harvey and her 74-year-old mother, who lives in Albemarle, resorted to living in their 2001 Chevy Tahoe in the Carolinas Medical Center garage. They ate there, slept there and changed clothes there, she said.
This went on for 19 days, until one of the surgeons found out and told them about Charlottes Hospitality House, a charity that houses the families of out-of-town patients during medical treatment.
Harvey and her mother have been able to stay there the past three weeks, thanks to a special fund that covers the cost of food and lodging for struggling families.
A campaign to raise money for the fund recently won strong backing from the Leon Levine and Howard Levine foundations, which are offering to match up to $50,000 in donations, dollar for dollar.
This is basically a place for people who are going through something devastating at the hospital, and I think its wonderful, said Harvey, 56, who continues waiting for her sister to improve.
That car wasnt big enough to stretch out, so I was sleeping all folded up. My mother is skeptical of people, so she kept her windows rolled up. I couldnt breathe and I woke up every morning with cramps.
She says they werent the only people sleeping in that garage. We met a guy whose wife had gotten hit by a dump truck. He had no money or food with him and his wife was on a respirator. We shared everything with him and befriended.
Carrie Howell, executive director of Hospitality House, says its common to hear of out-of-town families sleeping in cars while trying to stay as close to a loved one in local hospitals.
Hospitality House also takes in out-of-town patients who come to Charlotte for a day of treatment and arent well enough to drive back to their hometown immediately.
Hospital social workers refer families to the charity, which charges $40 per night for food and lodging. Thats a fraction of what hotels charge, but some families still cant afford it. Thats where the GAP fund helps, said Susan Ross, the agencys director of development. Since being created a year ago, the fund has helped 233 people, who averaged stays of about 75 days each at the house.
With the economy, we have a lot of people out of work and the medical bills can be financially devastating, Ross said. We also provide a free service for people who just need to come for a shower, have a cup of coffee and wash their clothes.
The house, which has beds for up to 50 people, is largely funded through donations from individuals, faith organizations, corporations and foundations like the Leon Levine Foundation. It also offered a $25,000 matching grant in 2011, which was matched by the Howard Levine Foundation.
This year, the two foundations decided to join forces. Tom Lawrence of the Leon Levine Foundation said founders Leon and Sandra Levine feel strongly about the mission of Hospitality House.
Raising the money is only part of it, Lawrence said. The hope is to make more people aware of this important program and to create that base of donors that can help it grow for the future. Its about creating long-term stability.