The History of Family House

  • Neville-Sketch

Pittsburgh’s prominence as a major international medical center draws thousands of critically ill patients from around the world to the city. Under conditions of maximum stress, family members are usually forced to improvise living arrangements at hotels or apartments, sometimes even sleeping in hospital waiting rooms. Both the financial and the emotional costs of such accommodations can be devastating to patients as well as their families.

Together, The Women’s Auxiliary of the American Cancer Society and the University Health Center of Pittsburgh first conceived of Family House early in 1980. Oncology patients were often missing treatments because they lacked transportation to Pittsburgh and a place to stay once they had arrived. They also lacked the essential warmth and support of their families. Created with a community board and supported by hundreds of dedicated volunteers, Family House opened as Pittsburgh’s home for families facing a medical crisis.

In November 1983, a small group of community leaders and doctors finally opened the doors of Family House. Observing countless family members sleeping in hospital corridors and waiting rooms for nights on end as their loved ones received medical care, they knew that something had to be done. They established a non-profit organization and raised enough money to refurbish a rundown Pittsburgh mansion on McKee Place, only blocks from Pittsburgh’s hospital complex. Families of patients with life-threatening illnesses could stay in comfortable surroundings at very little expense. They could even cook their own meals in the communal kitchen to avoid the expense of eating out.

Within two months of opening, the 39 rooms of McKee were constantly filled, and the waiting list was growing. In 1989, a second Family House was built nearby on North Neville Street offering 40 additional guest rooms. With a wide porch and big, cheerful windows, it looks like a lovingly restored Pittsburgh mansion, but it is actually a state-of-the-art inn, equipped to accommodate guests implanted with an artificial heart pump called Novacor. Family House was the first out-of-hospital facility to receive Federal Drug Administration approval to house patients on Novacor.

As the years went by, Family House was continuously seeking additional guest accommodations. From 1991-1997, Family House operated a third facility, The Family House Inn, with 47 rooms in The Neese-Barkan Building. When that space was no longer available, Family House moved to a floor in Montefiore Hospital until 2001. At that time, Family House Shadyside opened its doors. Formerly the Marlin Arms Apartment Building, Family House Shadyside has 44 beautiful suites to comfortably accommodate families.

As the need for affordable accommodations continued to increase, Family House sought locations within the heart of Oakland and, in June 2009, University Place opened for service. The top four floors of the University Club were transformed into 43 guest rooms, with the former racquet ball court and locker room now the main lobby, kitchen, dining, and living rooms.

What began as a small but compassionate enterprise has grown into an innovative, much-emulated model of family/patient support systems. However, the complete story of Family House is the human story — the sum of many individual stories of compassion, insight, determination, and generosity.

The founders of Family House understood intuitively what later medical studies would confirm: critically ill patients who are surrounded by calm, comfortable families enjoy a better quality of life and have a more positive attitude toward their treatment than those without such support. The quality of life that guests enjoy at Family House is more than a kindness. It is a significant element in the treatment process itself.

“Pittsburgh did it right,” says William J. Copeland, retired vice chairman of Pittsburgh National Bank and the first Family House board chairman. “We could have raised the money and put people up in a hotel–other cities have done that. But we followed our hearts and created the right organization.”