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Creating a home away from home for patients and caregivers during the holidays

A partnership between VCU Health and The Doorways helps patients and their families build community during their treatment journey.

Woman sits at a table holding up a little christmas tree smiling. Behind her is a sign that says “Thank you for all you do” with hearts around it. Other tables near her also have christmas trees. Sue Miller is the primary caregiver for her husband, Doug, who is receiving care at VCU Health. She says she's thankful for The Doorways for providing her a sense of community while she is away from home. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Danielle Pierce

Being away from home for the holidays is tough. But being away from home during the holidays in the midst of caring for a loved one experiencing significant health challenges can be especially difficult.

A unique partnership between VCU Health and The Doorways helps to make spending the holidays away from home a bit more bearable.

The Doorways is a nonprofit and privately-run organization dedicated to offering accommodations for little or no cost to patients, their families and caregivers that need to be close to VCU Medical Center, and other area partners, prior to, during or after medical treatment.

Dolly Hintz, founder of Hospital Hospitality House of Richmond which eventually became The Doorways in 2015, noticed patients’ families sleeping on couches and washing their clothes in the public restrooms while she was volunteering at VCU Medical Center in the ‘80s. She and other volunteers knew they had to do something.

“The family member is often the forgotten member of the health care team,” Hintz said. “It is so important for the patient to have their family close by. With time, The [Doorways] evolved to where the patient can also stay with his or her family.”

Originally founded in 1983 by volunteers at the MCV Hospitals Auxiliary, including Hintz, The Doorways consists of 117 guest rooms with dedicated floors for pediatric and transplant patients. There are also fully stocked kitchens and a pantry as well as family dining rooms and TV lounges for people to congregate. The facility, within a mile of VCU Medical Center, has additional amenities such as a library, fitness room and a chapel. An on-site laundry room is open 24-hours a day as well – all designed to make each guest feel at home during their stay.

The Doorways is the largest hospitality house in the country that operates on a donation-basis. It is suggested that guests contribute a $15 per night donation to help offset lodging costs, but nearly 50% of guests are unable to do so and no one is ever turned away due to inability to make this donation.

The Millers' journey to The Doorways

Sue Miller sees The Doorways as a lifeline. She is the primary caregiver for her husband, Doug, who is being treated at VCU Medical Center and VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center. They are currently spending their first holiday season at The Doorways, having first arrived in August 2023.

"I cannot imagine making this drive every day from Williamsburg to here,” Sue said. “Being able to come here and stay with my husband has just been a godsend.”

The drive to and from their home in Williamsburg to Richmond would take the Millers about an hour each way. Trying to find alternatives to the commute, Sue was referred to The Doorways by the stem cell transplant team at VCU Health.

Doug, a retired Army veteran, was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of blood cancer in March 2023.

There are certain requirements for patients in the transplant program, so many families are referred to The Doorways’ services as a way to ease into their treatment journey.

“In the transplant program I work with, patients are required to stay within 30 minutes from the hospital for a length of time following their hospital stay,” said Linda Mayhew, who has been a pre-transplant nurse for 22 years. “Transplant patients treated at VCU Health come from all over Virginia, so many of our patients are not local. The Doorways offers an affordable means for patients to stay in Richmond and receive care at VCU Medical Center.”

Referrals to The Doorways is one of the options VCU Health care teams and social workers offer as support services to help patients and caregivers navigate treatment and life outside of a health care setting. Our efforts aim to connect patients to resources to help take the next step in their treatment journey or after being discharged from the hospital.


Woman smiles while standing next to a little snowman with a hat. She is playing with the hat.

Sue Miller has been a guest of The Doorways since August 2023. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Building a supportive community

With endless days of appointments, and Sue credits The Doorways with giving her valuable physical and emotional support while navigating her husband’s treatment.

The high school sweethearts have been married for 43 years and have two adult children.

“It’s been rough,” Sue reflected with tears in her eyes. “There have been some days when I just come back here and cry. But you're surrounded by people that have an idea of what you're going through. Their journey may not be exactly the same but they understand. And that has made all the difference.”

Sue and other guests of The Doorways, have open access to common areas, such as the kitchen, library and dining areas. It’s in these spaces where they are able to come together to talk, share a meal, play board games and offer much needed words of encouragement.

“There were four tables in the dining room and we pushed those together so that we could all sit together to talk,” Sue said. “We called it the community table.”

Hintz has witnessed this comradery over the years too.

“They're not only getting it, they're giving it,” she said, noting the support guests give one another. “They feel like they're in a community of others sharing their story. They can come back from an appointment and feel that comfort, and they can give it back as well.”

The common areas are also the spaces that The Doorways staff decorate for the holidays and where they organize events.

“We know that it’s hard to be here for the holidays, so we try to do little things that lift the spirits of everyone who walks through our doors,” said Jessica Hale, communications manager at The Doorways. “Whether that’s decorating or hosting a hot chocolate party, we are here to support their journey and make them comfortable in any way that we can.”

With the holiday season in full swing, The Doorways focuses on creating a warm and comforting atmosphere for guests. Special events, such as a Christmas brunch with Santa, aim to bring joy and a sense of normalcy to those facing health challenges away from their regular homes. Volunteer groups regularly come in to put together goodie bags for guests or cook family-style meals, adding to the sense of community.

Home away from home

Over the past four months, Sue has become an integral part of The Doorways, forming connections with fellow guests and even providing tours to newcomers.

“A lot of people are starting to think that I work here,” Sue joked. “But I show them my blue band and I tell them, I’m a blue-bander just like you.”

The blue band refers to a wristband that all of Doorways guests’ wear during their stay. And while it’s meant as a way to identify different people who visit the facility, it serves as another way that guests feel connected to each other while staying there.

“Even though they are probably going through the worst time in their life, we want it to be a wonderful experience for everyone who stays here,” Hintz said. “They have the comfort of a safe place to stay. They know they're going to have a good meal and a hug every once in a while.”

Understanding the challenges faced by those undergoing medical treatments at all times of the year, and especially the holidays, The Doorways and VCU Health team members make an effort to ensure patients and their loved ones can heal in an supportive environment that feels like they are in a home away from home.

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