Mary Kay Deen, whose grandsons call her Booma, is a long way from home. She’s traveled more than 1,000 miles from Bay St. Louis, Miss., to receive a stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to treat a form of blood cancer. Chemotherapy has taken her hair and left her tired. But the fight isn’t gone from this petite woman with a slight southern drawl, and this is due, in large measure, to the encouragement she receives from her fellow patients at Gift of Life Transplant House.
Founded by Edward Pompeian, who’s also from Rochester, Gift of Life provides organ and tissue transplant patients and their caregivers with high-quality, affordable housing in a home-like environment while they prepare for, undergo, and recover from treatment at the Mayo Clinic.
The human body can do amazing things: survive traumatic injuries, recover from organ transplants, and grow stronger over time. But the human spirit surpasses the body in its capacity for the miraculous, Pompeian says, which is why it was important to him to create an environment of camaraderie and community for his guests when he purchased an old Craftsman, eight-bedroom house blocks from the Mayo Clinic in 1984.
Over the past 30 years, Gift of Life has grown and now consists of two buildings with 87 rooms. Each room has two beds—one for the transplant recipient, and another for a family member or caregiver—as well as a private bathroom. All the cooking is done in communal kitchens, and social spaces are set up to encourage interaction among residents. Guests sit at large wooden tables in the dining hall, or watch television together on cozy sofas. They walk in the outdoor garden or sit side-by-side in the row of rocking chairs that lines the front porch.
Deen says she doesn’t know if she’d be recovering as well if she’d stayed in the apartment she first moved to in Rochester. Staying at Gift of Life changed everything for her. “If you don’t feel good—for instance, I was on oxygen for two weeks—people here cheer you on. They don’t let you be sick,” Deen says of the other patients.
According to Executive Director Ginger Holmes, bone marrow and stem cell transplant recipients make up 60 percent of their guests, and typically stay between 100 and 120 days. (Heart and lung transplant patients average three to four months, while kidney transplant stays are the shortest at about three weeks.) Gift of Life asks for $35 per day if patients can afford it, but no one is turned away. If the house is full, they’ll help patients find a hotel at a discounted rate until a room becomes available.
Pompeian long dreamed of opening a transplant recovery house, where patients could stay for little or no cost. “Hotels are not the place to be when you’re going through something serious. When you’re sick and you’re not feeling well, there are stresses on family members,” Pompeian says.
Pompeian understands the difficulties personally. He was a kidney transplant recipient in 1973 when he was 21, following a series of misdiagnoses at other hospitals in his native Michigan. After developing an infection that destroyed his kidneys as a teen, Pompeian and his mother found hope at the Mayo Clinic and moved to Rochester. His father, Edward, stayed behind in Michigan to work and pay for the procedure. His mother, Helen, was his donor.
Before the days of patient care houses or extended stay hotels, the family stayed in a hotel and later signed a year lease on an apartment so that Pompeian could stay in the area to receive follow-up care.
After his recovery, Pompeian chose to stay in Rochester. He joined a real estate firm in 1975. “I had been sick from junior high on, I barely finished high school, and I had no college degree, but the real estate company took a chance, and as God willed it, I excelled,” he says. Pompeian was so successful, in fact, that he started his real estate company just three years later.
He soon starting visiting other transplant patients regularly and even met his wife Jayne, a nurse at the Mayo Clinic, while meeting with fellow transplant recipient. Pompeian commonly heard people ask where they should stay. There was a need for nearby extended-stay patient housing, which only grew as transplant technology continued its rapid development.
Today, Mayo handles more than a thousand transplants per year, and Gift of Life has expanded to meet the demand. In 2013 alone, some 4,100 people stayed at the facilities. The vast majority of their guests are referred directly from the Mayo transplant center.
“The whole transplant house concept from the beginning was on a hope and a prayer,” says Pompeian. “Today, our biggest donors are the people who stay in the house.”
Pompeian has continued to make the rounds with patients since his own surgery 40 years ago, including an extended stay in 2004 when he returned for his second kidney transplant. His body ultimately rejected the kidney donated by his mother 30 years earlier. This time he received another from his son Aaron. “I do not know where God will lead us in the future, but the path he has outlined for me and Gift of Life has surely made a difference in thousands of peoples’ lives,” says Pompeian.