When Toni Moore founded Hospitality House of Tulsa in 2006, she never anticipated living there herself. The nonprofit, 1137 S. Victor Ave., provides lodging, meals, transportation assistance and prayer support to family members of patients who must travel 30 miles away or farther to a Tulsa-area hospital, outpatient center or cancer center.
Although elective surgeries stopped for a time and hospitals tightened their visitor policies to help contain spread of the coronavirus, Hospitality House continued to provide lodging to many family caregivers and outpatients.
During “shelter in place” orders, Moore and the nonprofit’s housekeeper each stayed in one of Hospitality House’s 13 overnight family suites for more than a month to ensure clients were still being served after staff had been sent home.
Moore recently spoke to us by phone about the effects of the pandemic on Hospitality House and those it serves.
Tell us what your world has looked like since March.
Normally, before COVID, we run 100% occupancy every night, and we have a waiting list that averages about 18 families every day. The need for our services is pretty great. When the COVID crisis hit and we went to a shelter in place order, of course immediately we saw that the hospitals were restricting visitors. Then the decision was made at the state level, and sometimes at the national level, that elective surgeries should be postponed.
We had a house full of families and outpatients. As people were discharged to go home we didn’t see a huge waiting list continue because of the visitor restriction and the elective surgeries, but we did continue to serve really critical patient situations with the ones who were staying in our house.
During COVID we ran about 50 to 70% occupancy through the entire time. So it’s not like the need went away. But the ones who were coming — their situations were pretty critical. We were keeping family members of ICU patients who were from really far away. We had families that were from Kansas and Tennessee and New York state. When they started restricting visitors, even the family could not go in, and they were recommending people shelter place at home.
Those families came to me and said, “We’re not going home without our patient.” And, of course, they wouldn’t. They couldn’t travel that far away (back home) just to shelter in place, and then have to come back a week or two later to get their patient and then make the trip back home again.
They don’t have that kind of expendable funds, so of course they wanted to stay. The emotional distress of not being able to be at their patient’s bedside was pretty dramatic, as well. So for us, it was really important to stay open and continue serving.
We also were keeping cancer patients who were right in the middle of their treatment. They could not interrupt that treatment because it would be a severe detriment to their health. So we were keeping cancer patients and their primary caregiver in the house.
When a crisis like COVID hits, babies don’t stop being born. We keep parents of babies that are in the neonatal unit, so when those babies are born premature the parents have to be here, the moms have to be here. And so all of that continued on.
How did your daily operations change?
It really was a daily situation once we went to shelter in place. The CDC was coming out with guidelines every day that were different and updated. And of course, the fear of how the virus could be transmitted was pretty high with a lot of unknowns, and so for us to be able to stay open and to keep everyone safe, including the staff and volunteers … We told all volunteers to stay at home. I sent my operational staff and my administrative staff to work from home. Then I moved into Hospitality House along with our housekeeper. We actually moved into two different apartments so we could shelter in place with the families. That was so we could kind of put a bubble around the house and not have people coming and going.
What that meant was we had to close down all the common areas. So the places where guests normally do laundry or cooking, we closed those to the public as per CDC guidelines. Instead, the families, if they needed their laundry done, they would put their laundry in their basket outside their door, and they would text us. Then we would come by pick up their laundry, we would do their laundry and then return it to them to their door.
We had restaurants that came in to partner with us during the COVID time and bring in one meal a day for the guests, and then the housekeeper and I would cook one meal a day, as well. So we were really just trying to take care of the families’ needs.
Fortunately, in each family suite, the families have a what we call a warming kitchen. So they have a dorm-sized refrigerator, a microwave, a toaster oven, a coffee maker, and we put snacks and lunch items in their apartments for them so they could still kind of self-sustain for a couple of meals. And then we supplemented on top of that.
Of course, the prayer support continued. What’s really great about our volunteers and our staff is, if we’re presented a challenge, we will figure out how to meet that need pretty quickly. Before COVID we normally would meet with the guests, and volunteers would meet with the guests. The guests would have an opportunity to share their concerns and their prayer requests, and our volunteer staff would pray with them in person.
But with COVID we can’t do that. So we quickly created an online prayer room, and our volunteers from home would man the prayer room. A guest could text or email their prayer request and a volunteer would pick that request up. They could contact the guests over the phone or they could pray and send a card that would be placed at the guest room.
So we were able to still continue that piece of support that was pretty critical. Ninety-four percent of the guests who check in with us request prayer support. That is a huge need that our guests continue to share as an important piece of the process of being here. So those are the kind of things that we did.
Fortunately, three years ago, we moved our guest information system into a Cloud-based system. And so our operations team and our staff is working from home, they could actually check in a guest over the phone and using text messages. So what guest was scheduled to check in, they would arrive on property and give us a call. That call would go to one of my staff members working from home. Then they would give the door code to the guests who would then be able to get to their door without any human contact. They would call us once they got in their room, and we would give them a tour over the phone of their apartment and how to check in.
Last year, our donors came together to help us with a project to change all of our door locks to a keyless touchpad system. (There were) just so many things really last year that we did that made a difference for us to be able to adapt pretty quickly.
So for 32 days, that’s how we operated during the height of the COVID shutdown. And our housekeeper and I lived there on site for 32 days. Now we’re back open as we always have been, except the common areas are still closed down, so we’re still helping the guests with their laundry; volunteers and staff are still helping with meals.
What was it like to live on site?
I was actually living in the day room, which is normally a common area that we have for family members who are on the waiting list. And it has a living room, a full-size kitchen and laundry room, a bedroom and a full-size bath. And so that’s kind of a central hub of one of the houses.
It’s interesting. I founded the mission 15 years ago, and I’ve never lived on site with the families, so it gave me a really great perspective. It’s a two-story building, and so there are two family suites above that particular unit. What I realized pretty quickly is that when families are in stress, they’re worried — then you add COVID on top of that ... People don’t sleep as much as they need to. There was lots of pacing in the house, lots of worry.
But at the same time, they will tell you that they feel safe. And they feel comforted. When the guests make comments that they feel like they’re at their own little home, that’s when you know you’ve achieved what they need. So while we maybe cannot take away all the worry and stress wrapped around their medical crisis, giving them a comfortable bed, food and a safe environment, and the fact they felt like that they were part of a community was really important to them.
I would say if there was anything I learned, it was probably that the stress is high for them, but what we’re providing for them helps so much — more than more than what people realize, I think. And I think until you’re in their shoes, you don’t really understand how much a place that feels like home can mean in a time of crisis.
How are things now?
We’re now running about 70 to 90% occupancy. We’re seeing an uptick in need now that the elective surgeries have opened up.
Let me kind of define what elective surgery means. Elective surgery to a non-medical person may sound like cosmetic surgery or dental surgery; they think, “Well, that’s something that doesn’t have to be done. They want that.” But that’s not what elective means in the medical field. Elective simply means it’s not an emergency surgery. It’s something that can be scheduled, but it certainly needs to be done. And we think about heart catheter procedures, cancer procedures — these are things that really have to be done timely for the patient’s health. They cannot be put off indefinitely.
So that’s what we’re seeing now, is those elective-type surgeries and procedures and treatments starting to pick up, but I will tell you that patients are still very fearful of scheduling those necessary procedures. And so we just want to make sure that patients and family members know there are places like Hospitality House where they can stay close. We are using above CDC guidelines to sanitize and keep everything safe and clean for them. And wearing masks, social distancing, all of that, is certainly being thought of as part of their best care effort.
We would just encourage people to go ahead and move forward with what they have delayed in their care. I can’t tell you how many patients and family members we’ve talked to who wish they had not put off their surgeries because their health has declined dramatically in the last three months. I want to encourage people: If they need a place to stay when they’re having that surgery or that procedure, to go ahead and give us a call. We will get you in as soon as we can.
Are you seeing some of the hospitals relaxing their visitor policies?
Now that has relaxed, and it is a hospital by hospital policy. And it’s also a floor by floor policy within a hospital. What we were seeing during the height of COVID was that if it was a pediatric patient, one parent could stay with that child in the room. But if it was a neonatal unit, one parent — usually it was the mom — could go in once a day and stay as long as she could at least six hours, up to 12 hours. She could not go back and forth. So once she went in for the day she had to stay as long as she wanted. And then she after she left, she couldn’t go back until the next day. So that was the policy for the DEC unit they have. They have relaxed that now, so the parents come and go several times during the day from the NICU.
With the other patients, during the height of COVID they weren’t allowing even family members of patients to come in. The only exceptions they were making were if a patient was close to death and they knew the family needed to say goodbye. They would allow like a 30-minute brief time with the patient and, of course, the family had to be completely geared up in PPE for that to happen. So, we knew, if we got a call from one of the guests that was staying with us that said, “The hospital called, and they said I can visit with the patient for just a little bit today.” We knew that was a very critical situation that they were allowing that.
So now that policy has been relaxed at most of the hospitals. But again, it’s a floor by floor situation. I’m pretty sure the caregivers of the cancer patients are probably still not going into the treatment rooms with them. I don’t believe they’re allowing any of the family members to spend the night in waiting rooms like they used to do. So that’s not happening. ICU — I’m pretty sure they’re not allowing family members to stay even at bedside overnight. And there’s a limit on how many hours that they can be in the hospital. So it just depends, you know.
I think the medical staff is doing a great job making all of the decisions that they have to make in terms of what’s best for the patient, what’s the best for the safety of all involved, and it’s a hard call. It is a hard call.
We know that patients do better when they have family member support at bedside. And so that’s what’s critical about keeping Hospitality House open. Because when we can provide the lodging, the meals and support for the caregiver who has traveled a long ways, and when they’re allowed to go in to be with the patient, they can do that safely and they can do that and provide the comfort — and really, the medical decisions sometimes are made by the caregiver, not by the patient. So it’s even more important that they’re there in front of the medical staff to make those judgment calls.
What happens when patients are discharged?
One of our programs is called Community Connection. Once a patient is ready to go home, with the permission of their family caregiver that’s staying with us, we will call ahead of their home community and arrange for support to continue once the patient has returned home. So that may look like a community bringing in meals to the home, or maybe a youth group mowing a lawn, or the prayer support from a local church continuing.
It’s one of those things that’s pretty important when you’re recovering from critical medical situation. We discharge patients from the hospital so much sooner than we used to. It really does fall on the family caregiver to provide that kind of support. So when a community can kind of come alongside the family caregiver, it really does help the entire family out as well as the patient.
What is Hospitality House’s biggest need right now?
We operate strictly on donations. We’re supported by family foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, individual donors and churches. We don’t charge families to stay with us. We give them a suggested nightly donation amount, but 85% of those we serve follow the poverty guidelines. They cannot afford a hotel room. That’s why we’re here.
So our ability to continue to remain open and to continue to serve these families is dependent upon the community donations. The best way to help in terms of monetary donation is to consider a monthly gift. Just think about what you could do each month. Some people give $10 a month, some people give $100 a month, and some people have companies that match their gift, and that’s always a help.
The other thing I would say is probably snacks and food items that we keep in the family’s apartments that get them through breakfast — things like soups and breakfast bars, and crackers and popcorn and just things that really make it home, for when they get the munchies or just need a quick snack or if they need to take something over to the hospital with them, they can do that. So those are things that are big help and we keep a big list on our website.
We are so grateful that the Tulsa community stepped up when COVID hit and provided the funds that we needed to continue to remain open. This community has always been extremely generous and thoughtful toward the needs in our community. Over 25,000 patients travel into
Tulsa each year in medical crisis, and we’re grateful that Tulsa has provided this home that can meet the needs of that population.