The partially constructed Fisher House located at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Medical Center on Garners Ferry Road (Photos and design by Tyler Fedor)

Donnell Baker, a Columbia resident, only expected to be in Charleston for a weekend while her husband took a test at the Charleston Veterans Administration Hospital.

The weekend, however, turned into a 30-day hotel stay and a $3,000 hotel bill when her husband contracted pneumonia while there.

“I was lucky that my credit card took it,” Baker said. “But like I said, most — a lot — of our veterans live only on Social Security, and I know that they couldn’t afford, you know, the 30 days bill.”

To avoid having others pay a similar hotel bill when coming to Columbia, the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Veteran Affairs Medical Center is building the Fisher House. It’s on-site free housing for veterans getting in-patient medical procedures and their families that travel with them. 

“We like to say it’s home away from home because they feel like they have people that are around them that understands what they’re going through,” Baker said.

In South Carolina, the only major VA medical centers are in Charleston and Columbia. The VA in Columbia serves 36 of the 46 counties of South Carolina — about 83,000 enrolled veterans per year, according to the agency.

While there are smaller sites around the state that offer limited services such as prescription refills, the Columbia and Charleston locations handle major medical procedures, such as surgery.

The Columbia housing will have 16 suites, some with multiple beds, and be available free of charge for those coming to the VA from more than 50 miles away, according to Tammy Finney, chief of community relations and engagement service.

“We have an opportunity to make a tremendous impact in the lives of veterans, not only to eradicate any financial burdens that their families may acquire by being a part of their health care,” Finney said.

The housing comes after Finney requested one be built through the Fisher House Foundation, a private entity formed by a family that works nationwide. She had gotten the idea during her time at the annual National Advisory Council of the VA in 2014. She said everyone there was talking about how beneficial having a Fisher House was to their local VAs and their families.

When she told Baker said it, she said Baker loved it. The two had become friends through events held by the Columbia VA.

Baker, because she didn’t work for the VA, could get involved by helping to create a non-profit to raise for money for construction. Baker said she took on the role since she thought most veterans wouldn’t be able to pay for housing if they needed to while getting medical work done.

“I’ve known the Fishers and the program it’s been doing for a long time,” Baker said. “And so I know it’s a worthwhile thing.”

To even begin the application process, though, the VA needed the land to build it.

The land most suited to the Fisher House was being used by private developers near the parking lot of the VA building. The developers were building three buildings there over 30 years through an enhanced lease-use agreement, according to David Omura, director of the Columbia VA health care system. Only one had been completed. Omura bought back the land to free it up for the Fisher House. It was then that Finney and Baker could apply to build a Fisher House.

“It is thrilling to me to see this Fisher House come to fruition,” Omura said. “For anyone driving down Garners Ferry Road, they see a building that is being erected faster than any other building you’ll see across the state.”

Once the land was bought and the VA got approval for the house in 2016, money needed to be raised for construction. The next year is when Finney and Baker put together the nonprofit called the Friends of Fisher House of Columbia, SC.

The group was made up of local veterans and members of the community involved with the VA. Baker served as the chair. It needed to raise $9 million to fund the construction.

“it was just a matter of making those connections and knowing people and getting the word out,” Sejuit said.

The group talked to veterans in South Carolina, specifically the Upstate, and made connections with groups dedicated to supporting veterans. These groups, such as AARP and the American Legion, donated money, according to Aubrey Sejuit, a veteran and secretary of the nonprofit.

Construction began on the house in March once enough money was raised.

Finney said the VA hopes to have families in the house by early 2023.

A sign showing what the Fisher House will look like when it’s completed

Board members of Friends of Fisher House Columbia, SC, from left to right, physician Brooks Herring, board secretary Aubrey Sejuit and Jared Evans, stand behind a construction beam signed by members of the board and community.

From left to right, Jared Evans, Aubrey Sejuit and David Omura, director of the Columbia VA health care system, at the ceremony when the beam was signed

Graphic showing how many people the VA Center in Columbia serves and how much space the Fisher House will have