When Michelle A. has had enough of spending eight-hour days at the hospital and stressing over her daughter’s hemoglobin levels, she escapes to The Doorways’ kitchen. There, she fires up the stove, pops in her earbuds and “vegges out” to a playlist of Kyle Eastwood’s soothing jazz.
“People need escapes,” Michelle says, “especially when they’re dealing with life and death.”
No doubt, Michelle has been cooking a lot in the three and a half years she’s been staying on and off at The Doorways. Her 38-year-old daughter (who shares her first name) was diagnosed at nine months old with sickle cell anemia, a debilitating and painful blood disease that doctors said could kill her by the time she was three. By age 15, she’d been hospitalized more than 150 times. The disease, which leads to chronic health complications, has damaged her heart, hips, kidneys and teeth. In late 2016 she spent a scary 110 days straight at VCU Health.
Michelle and her husband, Larry, have been bringing their daughter on the five-and-a-half hour trip from Burlington, N.C., to Richmond for specialized medical treatment since 2013. The couple takes turns, because one of them has to stay home and care for their adult son and teenage grandson. Both have sickle cell anemia.
Three ill family members equal three times the stress for Michelle.
But if anyone understands what it’s like to be a caregiver for someone you love, it’s the guests of The Doorways. They are uniquely equipped to empathize.
Last December Michelle and her daughter were sitting in The Doorways library with a volunteer, chatting frankly about the toll of sickle cell. A woman at the next table, speaking quietly to her nonverbal son, suddenly turned her attention to Michelle. She’d overheard her describe the worry that comes from parenting a chronically ill child, and offered Michelle a hug and a prayer.
“It feels like a sisterhood here,” Michelle says, delighted by the kind embrace. “You feel each other’s fear… of loss, fear of you’ll never get them home for Christmas —“
“— Or they won’t survive surgery,” her daughter adds.
The Doorways staff is sensitive to such burdens that accompany their guests and warmly acknowledges each person who walks through the door — whether for the first time, the four-hundredth time or sometime in between. “They always asks how my daughter is doing and what do I need,” Michelle says. “When you’re stressed, that makes a difference.”
A friendly smile to see, a home-cooked meal to enjoy and a safe space to grieve, get better or make a tough time bearable: These are what The Doorways offers guests.
Michelle is grateful, she says, and blessed. “I would be lost without a place like this.”
Carla Davis is a writer and editor living in Richmond.
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