The past 24 months have been excruciating for Michelle Baker, a free-spirited 23-year-old from Flamingo. In 2004 Baker was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and began a round of debilitating chemotherapy cycles. Alone in South Florida and unable to make the drive from her home near Everglades National Park to the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center complex in downtown Miami, Baker had a bit of relief when her doctor referred her to the American Cancer Society Winn-Dixie Hope Lodge. The lodge, adjacent to Sylvester at 1121 NW Fourteenth St., operates as a sort or hospice-oriented Ronald McDonald house; cancer patients stay free of charge at the sterile-environment-enforced lodge during rounds of chemo and radiation.
So Baker was devastated to learn the lodge will close in December, reportedly to make way for a new flank of the Sylvester center -- but not until 2009. In the interim the space will be leased out as offices for doctors. But she says what really angers her is that she learned of the imminent closure not from lodge or hospital staff but when some of those potential doctor-tenants came around to check out the prospective suite space with leasing agents and Realtors.
"It was devastating, and sad to learn of things this way," Baker said via phone between chemo regimens. Another patient, Conrad Fleming, a 56-year-old patient from Saint Croix, said: "This is about the misery that a $460 million hospital expansion will cause. There is so much good that huge sums of money can accomplish; heartless tragedy is unfortunately sometimes part of the picture." Fleming is undergoing two months of treatment for cancer of the larynx. "There is absolutely no way I could have financed lodging for that period of time in addition to all my other medical expenses," Baker said in a note to New Times (owing to the fact that he can't speak).
The lodge assists the families of patients as well. Bill and Sharon Hull of Fort Walton Beach were distraught enough by their son Andrew's diagnosis of Ewings sarcoma; navigating downtown Miami was more than they could cope with. "When we arrived in Miami, we had no plans as to where we would be staying," Sharon Hull said. "Our case worker fortunately enabled us to stay at the Hope Lodge. We were most impressed with the rules concerning the maintaining of cleanliness of our new home away from home. The immune systems of cancer patients are seriously jeopardized during treatments and it is imperative that their environment is as germ free as humanly possible."
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Sylvia Hernandez-Powell, director of the lodge through her post with the American Cancer Society, had not returned calls seeking comment by post time, nor had hospital officials.-Jean Carey