After 17 years of supporting cancer patients, Marshfield’s Hope Lodge faces uncertain future

Published: Jul. 9, 2020 at 6:35 PM CDT
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MARSHFIELD, Wis. (WSAW) - Kimberlie Wee was a 22-year-old student at UW-Madison in 2006, preparing to go into a career of global public health. Just before she was to depart to Ecuador for a semester of study abroad, her mother took her to their family doctor with concerns.

“She was full of life,” her mother, Becky Wee, recalled. “Very active, very involved, lots of friends.” She was majoring in nursing and Spanish—but seven months later, she passed away from acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.

“It was too much,” her mother said. “The treatments were too much.”

Fighting one of the most deadly forms of cancer, after six months of chemotherapy at Marshfield Clinic she had been in remission—but she didn’t survive the bone marrow transplant, needed due to the disease’s severity. It was just after Christmas.

Today, her parents are staunch advocates of the Hope Lodge in Marshfield where she and her mother were able to stay during her treatment at the Marshfield hospital—the family hails from Rice Lake, two hours away. Owned and operated by the American Cancer Society, the organization announced the permanent closure of the lodge in June, an announcement that came abruptly and sparked shock in the community that raised both the funds to build it in 2003 and annually donates much of the financing that has supported its ongoing operations.

“Knowing you didn’t have to worry about a place to stay, it took so much off your mind,” Becky Wee reflected. “It’s such a wonderful place.” With 22 rooms supporting the stays for patients and their caregivers, the walking path surrounding the Hope Lodge reflects the names of hundreds of cancer survivors who have pass through its halls.

“It’s a home away from home,” Becky said.

She and her husband are one of 130 individuals, couples, and organizations who recently signed an open letter to the American Cancer Society, calling on them to donate the facility back to the community that has supported it.

“The only responsible and ethical way for American Cancer Society to proceed is to donate the Hope Lodge facility to the community of Marshfield, and return all donor restricted funds,” the letter reads in part. “Hope Lodge was built in 2003 by philanthropy and sustained since its opening by support from the community and volunteers.”

Kimberlie’s doctor, a now-retired medical oncologist who spent 35 years working for Marshfield Clinic, is another signer on the letter. Involved in the Hope Lodge since its founding in 2003 and serving on its steering committee for the facility’s lifetime, Dr. William Hocking wants to see it turned over for the Marshfield Clinic to manage—continuing its support for cancer patients and potentially expanding its services to include other types of patients as well.

“I found Hope Lodge to be one of the greatest things that had happened to our medical community,” Dr. Hocking told NewsChannel 7. “Patients when they’re confronted with a diagnosis of cancer are dealing with so many different issues…The patients that stayed here just came to really love this place, and they made many connections. They developed friendships here that have gone on for years.”

At last count, more than 25,000 patients and their caregivers had used the Hope Lodge—patients from all over Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the entire country. Free stays meant that it saved patients more than $7 million in lodging costs, Dr. Hocking said, affording them peace of mind while experiencing circumstances that gave them anything but.

“We’re in a rural center…where we get patients referred from long distances. It’s so difficult for people that don’t have a place to stay,” he noted.

The Hope Lodge, like more than 30 others operated by the ACS around the country, had been temporarily closed for services since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, the ACS announced the facility’s permanent closure, citing financial strain from the pandemic as one of the factors behind the decision.

“A recent review of the Society’s nationwide Hope Lodge program showed steady declines in occupancy at the Marshfield location which has operated at less than 50% capacity since 2016,” a press release stated. “In addition, the Society is anticipating at least a 30% decline in revenue nationwide, prompting the organization to invest its limited resources for maximum impact.”

In a statement to NewsChannel 7, a spokesperson for the ACS said they are continuing discussions with the community about the future of the facility, but did not respond to whether they intend to sell or donate the facility—or what percentage of operating revenue has been comprised of donated funds from the annual Vita Bella gala held in Marshfield to support its operations. The community, however, fears the facility will end up on the market.

“Given the fact this was built on funds raised in our community, and donated to ACS and raised by people in this community, the idea of having to purchase it back at market value is not very appealing, and does not seem like the right approach to take,” Dr. Hocking noted.

“We hope that ACS will realize that returning the facility to our community is the right thing to do for cancer patients and their families,” noted Al Nystrom, one of the signees of the open letter and a member of the Marshfield Clinic Health System Foundation board of directors.

More than a dozen cancer patients are currently waiting to receive treatment, according to a spokesperson from Marshfield Clinic. According to Dr. Hocking, those patients have delayed their treatment so they could utilize the Hope Lodge when it reopened—and in the meantime, the Marshfield Clinic fundraising foundation raised money to foot the hotel bills for patients undergoing treatment.

Kymberlie’s parents became active in fundraising at the annual galas for the Hope Lodge after Kimberlie passed away. Today, they’re advocating for its future.

“I speak for a lot of the other patients and a lot of the other families,” Becky noted. “This is just so nice to have.”

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.

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