The year was 1980. Dr. Arthur Ablin, Head of Clinical Pediatric Oncology at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), was deeply concerned about the hardships faced by the families of children being treated for cancer.
Childhood cancer is relatively rare; about 16,000 cases are diagnosed in the United States each year. But when it does strike, it turns a family’s life upside down. The diagnosis of cancer in a child is incredibly distressing for everyone in the family. It creates an instant need to do everything possible to help the child.
Childhood cancers are treated mainly at large medical centers such as the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. As a result, Ablin says, “Parents must often travel long distances with their very sick children to receive care.”
Before Family House was founded, many parents struggled to find temporary housing in San Francisco while their children were being treated at the UCSF hospital. For many, staying at a hotel or motel for the days, weeks or even months their child was hospitalized was well beyond their financial means.
How Family House Started
Ablin and his wife, Debbie, recruited a small group of friends, colleagues, and oncology parents to help turn his idea of creating a pediatric guest house into reality.
Barry Grove was a San Francisco attorney who had lost a child to cancer. “There were some really wonderful people involved with the creation of Family House,” Grove says. “Most of us had had a child with cancer. All of us were fighting back against the disease. It really felt good to be doing something.”
Dan and Kathleen Toney had lost their five-month-old son, James Donovan Toney, to a brain tumor. They subsequently had three more children, but the experience of losing young James Donovan stuck with them and they were eager to help other parents of children with cancer.
Other members of the founding group included Ann and John Leonardo, David Joy, and Dr. Joseph Kushner, a colleague of Ablin’s at the UCSF hospital. Ann Leonardo says she and her husband were “horrified” that many oncology parents were forced by financial circumstances to sleep in their cars or in chairs in the hospital waiting room. She says she and her husband talked with Ablin and offered to help in any way they could, having lost their young son, John.
The new organization addressed an important issue: how to overcome the isolation that many oncology parents feel when they are suddenly in a strange city, far from home, with no one to lean on for emotional support. “We quickly realized that the families staying at Family House were very supportive of each other,” Ablin says.
“And that became the real service we offered–the ability of families to talk with other families who were empathetic and had similar concerns and needs.”