BY JIM HOWE
Cancer patients and their families who travel to Syracuse for treatment face the question of where to stay and how to get around.
Spending days or weeks away from home can get expensive if the patient, and often a relative or friend along for support, stay in a hotel and eat in restaurants. It can be cold and impersonal as well.
Sarah’s Guest House offers a warm alternative. It’s a comfortable, homelike residence that provides a low-cost place to stay with free meals, a laundry room, lounges, parking, Wi-Fi and rides to and from the hospital.
It’s designed for adult patients and their families, in contrast to the Ronald McDonald House, which serves families of sick children.
In operation since 1994, Sarah’s Guest House was inspired by a leukemia patient who wanted to bring the “home away from home” concept of adult hospitality houses to Syracuse. His aunt, Mary Keogh, founded the nonprofit residence and ran it for many years. Although it has no religious affiliation, the house takes its name from the biblical Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who was known for her hospitality and kindness to wayfarers.
Most of the patients who stay in Sarah’s Guest House are receiving outpatient cancer treatment at the Upstate Cancer Center, and many go home on weekends. But the house hosts patients for any medical issue and from any Syracuse hospital, as well as the patient’s family members or friends.
“They were just so nice to me,” says Kassandra Holmes, 66, of Utica, who stayed from March to July 2015 while she was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for small cell lung cancer. “It was very comfortable, and they make you feel just like you’re one of their own, a family member. You don’t have to do anything but go to your appointment and rest.” Holmes plans to stay at the house again when she returns for follow-up procedures.
The house’s executive director, Jen Coman, says many of the cancer patients get close to the volunteers. “They might have a 15-minute treatment and then are here with us the rest of the day.
“These people have to leave their families, pets and neighbors and stay in a strange city,” she says, noting that she felt lucky to live close by when she underwent breast cancer surgery herself two years ago.
The residence occupies the renovated convent of Most Holy Rosary Church, at the edge of Syracuse’s Strathmore neighborhood, about two miles west of the Cancer Center. Eleven rooms are divided into suites with single or double beds, each with a sink and a shared bathroom. Guests need a referral from a health care provider, medical social worker or pastoral care worker.
Thanks to volunteers, meals are available every day, as well as rides to the hospitals, and someone is always around to offer a friendly ear or a cup of coffee. Bedding and towels are provided, and toiletries are available if anyone forgets a toothbrush.
More than half of the funding for the operation comes from individuals, and the rest from organizations including the St. Agatha Foundation, William G. Pomeroy Foundation and Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation, as well as fundraisers including an annual gala and golf tournament.
“The budget is still under $250,000 a year, which is low for a place like this,” says Coman, who is assisted by three part-time employees. The house keeps a tight budget and gets a lot of donations of goods and services from a small army of volunteers.
Sarah’s Guest House, by the numbers
10 – minutes drive to the Upstate Cancer Center
20 or 35 – dollars per day for single or double occupancy (although no one is turned away for inability to pay)
30 – percent of guests who stay because a relative has cancer; 30 percent stay for heart patients and 30 percent stay for surgical or orthopedic patients
12 – guests per day is average; 20 is a full house
3 – days is the average length of stay for guests
40 to 53 – percent of guests from the North Country (Lewis, St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties), depending on the year
This article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine.