On a stormy night in late April, Rali Penchev was seven months pregnant when her water broke. Because Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is not well equipped to handle premature births, a MedFlight was called, but it was unable to fly due to the weather. The next morning she was transported by ambulance to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Ten days later, with her husband George Penchev nervously waiting in the lobby, Ms. Penchev underwent an emergency cesarean section. Their daughter, Zara Pencheva, was born seven weeks premature, and weighed 3 pounds, 13 ounces, and measured 15 inches in length.
Ms. Penchev stayed in the hospital for four days before she was discharged. Zara remained in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU). It was Easter Sunday, and the couple didn’t know where they would go. They checked local hotel rates, which were about $300 a night.
The Penchevs are naturalized U.S. citizens, originally from Bulgaria. Rali Penchev, 35, is a switchboard operator at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and George Penchev, 35, is a real estate agent and a manger at the Boathouse. The couple had been coming to the Island since 2002, and moved here permanently in 2011. They have a home in Edgartown.
The new parents were concerned because the doctors couldn’t predict how long their daughter would be in the hospital. Some premature babies remain in the NICU for as long as three months.
“We were worried,” Ms. Penchev said. “Technically, we could have come back to the Island, and just visited Zara once a week. But we couldn’t do that. It’s your baby. She’s there. You have to see her every day. So we were going to do whatever it took.”
A social worker from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, knowing the couple was from Martha’s Vineyard, recommended they contact Hospitality Homes, an organization that, although it started in 1983, many people both on- and off-Island know little about.
People with great hearts
Hospitality Homes provides free housing to patients and families visiting Boston for medical care. Members of the organization traveled to the Island and met with a social work team at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and with a large team of service providers at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) earlier this month. The purpose was to help both facilities understand better what the program is, how it works, and to get staff more comfortable with recommending it as a viable housing option.
In an interview with The Times, executive director Marianne Jones said Hospitality Homes provides an alternative housing model in which volunteer hosts provide a clean place to sleep, normally a guest room in a home, and access to a bathroom. The length of stay can be anywhere from one night to three months, with an average stay of 14 days.
One of the requirements of the program, according to program manager Emma Galin-Attleson, is that the patient or the support person for the patient comes from further than 50 miles away from Boston.
“Coming from Martha’s Vineyard, it’s just so difficult, logistically, to get from here to Boston,” Ms. Galin-Attleson said. “For some of the more difficult cases and intense situations medically, if they can’t receive the treatment that they need here and have to go to Boston, to not have to come back and forth and incur the cost and the time and the stress would make them good candidates for the program.”
It was Ms. Galin-Attleson who responded to the Penchevs’ call. Hospitality Homes has a network of about 60 volunteer hosts who open their homes; however, all those homes were already full. But because of a newly formed partnership with Airbnb, which donates free housing through Hospitality Homes in the form of coupons, the Penchevs were able to find last-minute accommodation. With a $1,000 coupon from Hospitality Homes, the couple was able to stay in an Airbnb lodging for 12 days.
They then were placed in a host home in Chestnut Hill for another three days. Ms. Penchev said the family exceeded their expectations, making sure she had her own bathroom, and even set up a refrigerator because she had to pump breast milk to bring to Zara in the hospital.
“Who would give away a part of their home?” Ms. Penchev asked. “It’s people with great hearts.”
Hospitality Homes serves between six and 10 families a year from the Island, according to Ms. Jones. She said the number of families seemed low, particularly considering that people often have to go to Boston for specialized medical care, enduring the burden of the cost of the ferry and getting to the city.
“It seemed to us that people may not have known about our services,” Ms. Jones said.
‘Ask for help’
Ms. Penchev said she preferred her stay with Hospitality Homes as opposed to a hotel because it provided her with the comfort and support that a hotel was unable to provide. During such a stressful time, accommodation and the cost it can incur was something the couple didn’t have to worry about. They were spending 10 hours a day at the hospital with their daughter. After a quick recovery for Zara, the family was able to return to the Island after a 15-day stay with Hospitality Homes. Ms. Penchev said Ms. Galin-Attleson still follows up with her by phone or by email to check on Zara today.
“Some people get embarrassed to ask for help,” Ms. Penchev said. “I’m kind of like this. But they make you feel so comfortable. It’s OK to ask for help. You can’t do everything on your own. Sometimes it’s impossible.”
“It’s a human connection, and that support is something you wouldn’t find in any other setting,” development and communications director Shanon Heckethorn said of Hospitality Homes.
Denise Duclos, director of engagement and outreach, said that Hospitality Homes provides patients and families with a place to spend the night, and it also gives them a family who serve as a bridge to connect them with the Boston community. The organization tries, when possible and through donations, to provide Charlie Cards for the T, toiletry bags, restaurant gift cards, and even tickets to museums or a Red Sox game.
“It goes beyond just a place to stay; it’s a whole support network,” Ms. Duclos said.
Hospitality Homes serves all the hospitals in the Boston area. Patients with any diagnosis and any income level are welcome. The nonprofit requests guests contribute $25 a night toward their stay to help the organization continue, but nobody is ever turned away because of an inability to pay. Transportation and meals are not included.
While Ms. Jones and her staff were on-Island, they met with Nell Coogan, director of operations and community relations at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. They discussed the Transportation Access Program (TAP), funded through a contract with the state, that serves both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The program helps Islanders who have exhausted all their other options get to and from medical appointments off-Island.
“It’s a real big struggle for people on the Island,” Ms. Coogan said.
Ms. Coogan said that a large portion of the claims from TAP were for accommodations. When Hospitality Homes came to the Island to meet with MVCS, it became apparent how both could work together in the future to help best accommodate Islanders seeking medical care in Boston.
“It really fit into this niche,” Ms. Coogan said.
In most cases, the volunteer hosts stay in the home when patients and their families are there. There are situations, however, where hosts aren’t home. Many people on-Island come for the entire summer, leaving their homes in the Boston area vacant. The women at Hospitality Homes noted that these are potential host homes, which the organization is in need of.
“There’s a direct correlation between the number of people we can serve and the number of hosts that we have,” Ms. Heckethorn said.
The Penchevs hope more Islanders know that with Hospitality Homes, there is a solution for Islanders seeking medical care in Boston: one that gives a person in a time of need the comfort and support that both a family and a home provide.
“We will always remember the help that we got,” Ms. Penchev said.