Keeping Families Together When Times Get Tough
4 July 2016 at 10:16 am
Caroline Meehan is the CEO and founding director of Heartfelt Homes, which provides short-term accommodation for people whose loved ones require medical attention a long way from home. She is this week’s Changemaker.
In 2013, Meehan’s husband Andy was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. All of his treatments were a seven hour round trip away from their home in regional New South Wales. Not wanting to leave his side Meehan spent money they didn’t have on petrol, accommodation and extra day care for her two children.
While trying to get her own family through the situation, she thought about all the other families that must also struggle to stay together during medical emergencies. Heartfelt Homes was born.
Since launching, Heartfelt Homes, which utilises existing hotel and motel accommodation capacity to provide subsidised accommodation for families of patients receiving treatment, has helped 110 families, providing more than 450 nights accommodation. Meanwhile Andy is now back in work and on the road to recovery.
In this week’s Changemaker Meehan, a hairdresser by trade, talks about how she went from being a stay-at-home mum to CEO of a charity, why people can be too proud to ask for help and why it is so important to keep families together when more than 50 per cent of hospital admissions in Australia involve a patient who has to travel over 100 kilometres to get there.
How did Heartfelt Homes start?
My partner was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. We live in Lennox Head, northern New South Wales, and the nearest treating specialist for him was in Brisbane, for his type of cancer. So even though that wasn’t the nearest hospital for us, we were then having to travel a seven hour round trip just for appointments, scans, everything that led up to surgery and radiation and the time that he spent in hospital. And through that time, it just dawned on me, how do people do this? You know, I had two young children at the time, they were two and three… so I was separated from them. You know, I was devastated with Andy and his health and just overwhelmed and consumed with all the worry and going on with that, but then being separated from my children. It was just a horrendous time, it was really full on.
Andy was a self-employed builder and so overnight his income stopped and the kids being so young I was a stay-at-home mum so we could only afford for me to stay up there in Brisbane for a few nights really and it just really annoyed me that I knew the hotel was half empty and I had met other families that were just having to leave their loved ones and go back home because they lived much further afield, and I thought surely there is something that [can be done]. It is a very simple solution to just use the empty rooms, have that at a reduced rate, if not free. I mean naively I did think I would get free rooms. So it was really from personal experience, and understanding what families go through when your loved one is critically ill in hospital and you desperately need to be by their side and logistics and finances sometimes prevent that.
Often when someone is diagnosed with cancer the focus is understandably on treating them and making sure they are ok, do you think that people sometimes overlook the impact it also has on their loved ones?
Yes, definitely. I remember one day, because I was doing the seven hours drive every day, and this went on for weeks and I remember one day in hospital Andy was really quite sick and I said to him, I’m so worried about you love, and he was like “I’m more worried about you, you’re driving every day, you’ve got the kids, you look like you haven’t slept, I’m not sure you’re eating”, he said, “I’m just laid here, people are bringing me food, I’m in the best place, I’m being cared for”. And I think it really is. It is really tough on the families. Psychologically it is really distressing, and then physically and emotionally, everything. It is so hard and I think with the geography of Australia it impacts so many families, I’d say up to 50 per cent of families, have to travel at least 100 kilometres.
How did you get your own family through such a difficult time?
Looking back, honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know. It’s like it didn’t happen to us now. We feel like we’ve come through the other end and if we try and reflect it’s like, god that feels like that happened to someone else. We were very much on autopilot, but it was just a case of Andy needed to be where he needed to be and then when he came home, we just started on the journey for recovery and you know, only now, two and a half years later, Andy is back at work… our visits to the hospital are every six months whereas we were still up there every six weeks for a long time, so we are still living that process but it is becoming easier, life has come back to some kind of normality.
And I mean bless him, Andy, as part of his recovery, because he is partially paralysed down the right side because he had his full neck opened up, he took up cycling. And because Heartfelt was in its early days and desperately needed money, he and five guys cycled from Lennox to Sydney and raised just over $10,000. It’s been a really family effort. It was good for him to set himself a task, you know, a challenge, because it really did affect him mentally. He’s been out the workplace, he’s a tradie, I think he just felt lost, so this challenge was really good for him, good for his health and good for his mind. But it was just incredible for Heartfelt because at that time we didn’t have anything like $10,000 in it, but that enabled me to buy a lot more rooms and tell a lot more stories.
Do you think having been through that experience yourself means you are better able to help other families?
I think so, because I think people are very proud – well, they are. And it is very hard to ask for help. When we were going through it, I couldn’t even accept a lasagna, you know I just thought “oh no, you don’t need to do that”, and people are just really proud. So when I tell the families, because I speak to everyone, I say, you know “look I’ve been in your position, I understand what you need”, they just drop their guard and I think they know that I just get it. And the feedback from the hospital… one of the directors in a big Sydney hospital commented that this has been in the too-hard basket for any government and non government organisation and in 25 years no one has delivered what we’re delivering. And it is completely patient and family focussed. And it is so rare these days to have a service that is not, “look we can’t do this and we can’t do that”, we are just say “how can we do this?”
How does Heartfelt Homes make a difference to the community?
Ultimately we keep families together through these times. We’re different in the sense that, Ronald McDonald, Cancer Council, Leukaemia Foundation, they will let you have one accompanying adult carer, they often have long wait lists and criteria, so we just work with hotels, motels, serviced apartments and we can accommodate up to six family members at a time, and in those instances, there have been so many instances where, it sounds excessive but those numbers are needed.
If mum is in hospital and she has twins, and one of the twins is well, and is going to be discharged and one is in ICU critically ill, and she wants to breastfeed both babies, the one that’s discharged needs to stay nearby, but dad might have another couple of toddlers with him and so he might need grandma to come, and so you can see how the impact of keeping the family together just helps everybody.
Because when someone is sick in a family, often the little ones get shifted out to grandma or somewhere, they just have to go somewhere because mum and dad need to deal with whatever they are dealing with, and that has a huge psychological impact on the kids, “why am I not with mummy and daddy? what’s going on?” they don’t understand. So if we can keep them together, people heal faster and they cope better, patients heal faster. It is just all round support.
What are your current priorities?
The priorities now are to grow. I’ve just done a pitch up in Brisbane and achieved some funding from that and I’m going to start working with the Queensland hospitals, but ultimately the goal would be for this service to be in every hospital in Australia. There is no reason whatsoever why this shouldn’t be a national service.
What challenges are facing your organisation?
The challenges are that it is me in a spare bedroom on an old laptop! That is quite challenging now. So, every cent that has come in, I have spent on rooms, so I volunteer my time, I don’t have any infrastructure, operations are growing. I guess it is scaling the growth properly and just keeping on top of that. Because I am so protective and proud of the brand and what we can deliver, and we say yes to 99 per cent of families, that I’ve got to keep running it like that. It has got to be run well, but scaling it up to a national operation is a challenge.
What is the future direction of Heartfelt Homes?
The long term goal is to be in every single hospital. When I started this I always saw it as a national service and because our solution is moveable, you know there are hotels, motels and apartments around every major hospital, there is no reason why we can’t work in every state, so that is the long term goal.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
It is hard to look at things like that because I just have my head down and I’m just doing it, you know. But I think, we’ve helped 107 families now, in fact yesterday we had three, so 110 families in two years and I think that. Those 110 families would have been faced with very different choices had we not been able to help.
What keeps you motivated?
It is pretty exhausting. It is a lot of work now for me… [the phone] goes off all the time. But what keeps me going is for example, we have a palliative baby in at Westmead at the moment, five months old, born with the most aggressive cancer that children can get, and we’re keeping mum, dad and grandma and toddler together. And there’s no definitive with that. They know it is terminal, he is palliative, but just knowing that they can be there together. And speaking with the grandmother, nearly everyday, as I do, and understanding what it means to them to be there towards the end of this little ones life, it’s just that [that keeps me motivated]. That’s not an isolated story, that happens a lot.
You went from having your hands full as a stay-at-home mum, to caring for your husband, to becoming the CEO of a rapidly expanding charity, do you see yourself staying in the Not for Profit sector for the rest of your career?
I do. I am a hairdresser by trade, so this has been a crazy ride for me, a very steep learning curve but now I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I think that I’ve got a grip on how things work, and I just need to build up a team of awesome people who do have the skill sets that maybe I don’t. But yeah, this is the world for me now, because I’ve lived something, I’ve seen a solution, I’ve created it, it’s working and it is growing. So I can’t see myself coming out of this work.
Do you have a favourite saying?
Well I always say nothing is forever, but that’s a bit morbid isn’t it! I feel like I should give you something really uplifting but, nothing is forever. You have always got to keep yourself open to change and moving forward and moving on and take what life throws at you because you can learn so much from your experiences, good and bad.