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Mobtown Beat

Emergency Rooms

McElderry House lodges families during medical crises

Erin Sullivan
Najwa Gadaheldan (left) is so impressed with the work Theresa Preston (right) does at McElderry House that she's trying to help the business become a nonprofit organization.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 10/14/2009

For more information about Mcelderry House, visit mcelderryhouse.com.

Najwa Gadaheldan and her husband, Ewkehart Naumann, arrived in Baltimore from Vienna late in the evening in mid August. Gadaheldan, who lives in Europe and works for the United Nations, says she was suffering from a mysterious spinal problem that caused her to occasionally collapse. She had an appointment to see a doctor at the Johns Hopkins Hospital the next morning, and she and her family had booked accommodations with McElderry House Lodging, a small business that provides affordable lodging for families of Hopkins patients in the neighborhoods adjacent to the East Baltimore hospital complex.

"We arrived in the middle of the night," recalls Naumann, who was impressed to find Theresa Preston, the McElderry House proprietor, up and waiting for them. "She was there with milk, tea, biscuits, and hugs for our little girl."

A month and a half later, Naumann and Gadaheldan helped McElderry House hold an open house event on Oct. 7. Preston has operated McElderry House, which estimates that it hosts between 1,500 to 2,000 families per year, on a shoestring budget since 1996. It maintains 20 rowhouses in Hopkins' shadow, which are available to those with hospital-related needs--mostly patients' families, and occasionally to residents, fellows, and traveling nurses. Starting rates range from $66 per night for rooms with a shared bath, kitchen, and living areas to $132 per night for an entire private house, with long-term discounts available. There are no penalties for checking out early or for extending a reservation, because people usually have no control over their hospital stay.

"Things can be so unpredictable, so we don't hold anybody to anything," Preston says. "A lot of people need to extend their stay, so we do a constant juggling act to make it work."

The company makes for a negligible income for Preston, who sleeps in the office of McElderry House Lodging. She tried to retire to a home in Westminster several years ago, she says, but she couldn't stay away. Over the past few years, she has refinanced many of the houses she owns to help keep the business functional. Now, she's hoping that with the help of some supporters, the organization will be able to establish a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service--to help make ends meet, of course, but more importantly, Preston would like to be able to offer lower rates to clients in need.

Perhaps Preston could even offer some rooms for free for the neediest. "So many people, so many times, they just do not have the funds," she says.

It would also make it possible for the organization to apply for grants to keep the organization sustainable, which it sometimes struggles to manage, despite the referrals and goodwill it has with many Hopkins departments.

Preston's son-in-law, Eric King, lives around the corner from McElderry House and helps keep things running as needed, along with his wife, Preston's daughter Chiara. He says the refinancing of some properties has put a strain on their finances but, despite that, Preston has held the business to its mission.

"Even when the Obama [inauguration] thing was happening, and people were renting their houses for like $3,000, we didn't rent them out," he says. "We did have a moment where we were like, 'Hmm, this could really help things.' But no, we couldn't do it."

Preston, a tall woman with a short gray bob and a big smile, first came to Baltimore from Michigan as a traveling nurse on temporary assignment in 1992. She brought her then-14-year-old daughter Chiara with her, and the two thought they'd be returning home within a year. But seven months into their stay in Baltimore, Chiara told her mother she was experiencing pain in her arm; shortly after, she diagnosed with bone cancer.

"At first, the Traveling Nurses Society housed us in Tindeco Wharf, then Charles Towers," Preston says. "And we also moved five times on our own."

Chiara recovered--and remains cancer-free to this day--but the experience led Preston down a new career path. She wanted to provide families with the one thing she and her daughter lacked during the girl's illness: a safe and stable home base during a challenging and stressful time.

It started out with just a couple of houses, purchased or rented on the cheap to rent to people by the room; over time, King says "word of mouth" spread about McElderry House. Over the years, Preston has managed to purchase nine houses on McElderry, which she has modestly painted, carpeted, and decorated as rental units. The rest of the buildings are rented from other landlords, who King says have fortunately been "very good about the rent" because McElderry House--which must maintain a reputation as a clean, safe place to stay--helps keep the properties in shape.

Though they do hire housekeepers, Preston and the Kings do much of the basic maintenance on the houses themselves. "Theresa can tell you--she has made more beds," King says. "If something needs to get done, if she needs to get her hands dirty, she's doing it."

Gadaheldan says that since she's arrived at McElderry House, she's watched Preston spend nearly every waking moment taking calls from desperate families who can't afford to stay in pricey hotels, opening doors for late-night arrivals, and acting as a reassuring presence for individuals whose lives have been turned upside-down due to cancer, aneurysms, and other life-threatening illnesses.

"She doesn't have much, but she gives everything she has," Gadaheldan says. "I've seen her run from one house to another in the night to check on patients and she goes to the market for people who need it, she calls ambulances. I had never seen such a woman run such a business."

In fact, Gadaheldan says, if it weren't for Preston, she might not have received the treatment she'd traveled overseas to get. "We had a very bad experience with the doctor," Gadaheldan says, recalling that he told her that, at 42 years, she was "too old" for them to take her case and that she might as well go back home. Tearfully, the family returned to the office at McElderry House and told Preston that they had to cancel their reservations because they were heading home. Preston, who has developed a number of contacts at the hospital, wouldn't hear of it. She asked the family to wait while she made some calls.

"She called a manager and told them the story," Gadaheldan recalls. "A different doctor for spinal cord injuries was found, and two days later, we had another appointment."

While Gadaheldan is telling her story, some Hopkins nurses arrive to see Preston. They greet her warmly and thank her for her work with their patients--especially, they say, when it comes to Gadaheldan, a patient they've grown fond of in her six weeks in town. "I just wanted to thank you for making her feel at home," Teresita Achanzar, patient care manager at Hopkins, tells Preston. "You've made up for our shortcomings."

Preston is a woman of few words, but she receives the message with a broad smile. "It's really very selfish," she says. "It makes me feel good to do this."

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