'The epitome of what family is'

Author: Jessica Farmwald ’09

Ysmar Hernandez is not a Domer. She’s never lived in a dorm, attended a class or been to a football game at Notre Dame. Until recently she had never even seen Rudy.

“My sister always refused to watch Rudy, out of principle, out of spite, actually,” Ysmael Fonseca ’03, ’09J.D. jokes.

This changed last September when Hernandez’ first child, Diego, was diagnosed with leukemia just a few weeks after his birth. Ysmar and her husband, Christopher Hernandez, faithful Catholics from Edinburg, a small town on the southern tip of Texas, relocated indefinitely to the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where they knew no one.

“It was pretty difficult for me not being there,” Fonseca says. He and his parents visited soon after the Hernandez family moved to the hospital, “but we couldn’t stay there all the time because the doctor said they might be there for the next six months.”

When Fonseca learned that his sister and her husband would have access to the Eucharist only about twice a month through the hospital’s chapel, he was concerned. “There wasn’t really much that obviously I could do — I’m not a priest,” he says. Then Fonseca recalled something he’d heard about at his five-year reunion over the summer called the ND Hospital Support Program.

Cards and brochures passed out by the Notre Dame Alumni Association encouraged Domers to reach out to local ND clubs in case of hospitalization while away from home. The program offers nonmedical and nonfinancial support for emergency or preplanned hospital stays.

“I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. . . . But I took a card with me,” Fonseca says.

After some initial hesitation — “It’s not really an alum that’s in trouble, it’s really not even my child, it’s my sister’s child” — Fonseca got in touch with Katie Zakas ’04, director of service for the alumni association.

Zakas reassured Fonseca that the program is meant for an inclusive Notre Dame family — alumni, students, spouses, children, parents, faculty/staff and even subway alumni. “We want to let the entire Notre Dame family know that there are people, especially within the club network, who are ready to serve them and ready to be a source of support for them if they are facing something challenging,” Zakas says.

She put Fonseca in touch with the ND Club of Houston, which compiled a list of Eucharistic ministers to come to the hospital during the Hernandez’ three-month stay. Fonseca says that as club members came by to serve communion and drop off cookies and DVDs, it was especially beneficial for his sister to interact with people who weren’t doctors or nurses.

Jerry Toomey ’54 of the Houston club was at the hospital with the couple on a Saturday, cheering on the Irish against Stanford. Ysmar Hernandez even conceded to watch Rudy. “She said it was a very sappy story, but that it was very nice,” Fonseca says.

Eastern North Carolina club puts it together

Harnessing the generosity of the Notre Dame family is what Peter Campbell ’56 and his wife, Helaine, who live in Raleigh, North Carolina, hoped to achieve when they had the idea for the program in spring 2005.

“I read in a class newsletter that a classmate of mine had died, and he was at Duke University Hospital,” Campbell says. “He had lung cancer, and it turns out his hometown was about 300 miles from here, but Duke University is 20 miles from my house. So my wife and I discussed the situation, and I felt badly that here was a classmate, I don’t know him, but I had no idea if he had one visitor or 100 visitors. And he was only 20 miles away.”

The Campbells asked members of the ND Club of Eastern North Carolina to help them develop a proposal for a formalized hospital support program. “We wanted to develop the Notre Dame existing club network, and the network is made up of people who basically have the Notre Dame culture that says, ‘I want to help people,’” Campbell recounts.

The group presented a proposal to the Notre Dame Senior Alumni Board in September 2005, and the Hospital Support Program was born. In January 2008, management of the program was officially turned over to the alumni association.

One man, whose son was going to be in a Washington, D.C., hospital, was reunited with a roommate he hadn’t seen in 40 years when the roommate offered to let the man’s family stay in his home. Another club provided rides for a man in need of dialysis treatments three times a week. Other ministries include things as simple as hospital visitations, prayer support and recommendations of local places to shop and eat.

The program’s first patient was a Marine Iraq War veteran who has had more than 40 operations, including the amputation of his left leg. In addition to other support, the program put Rocky Bleier ’68, a member of the 1966 Notre Dame national championship football team, in touch with the Marine to provide words of encouragement. Bleier, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, started for the Pittsburgh Steelers after being wounded in the war and told he would never play football again.

Fonseca says he is grateful for the help he and his sister received through the ND Hospital Support Program. “It’s the epitome of what family is. It’s being there not just for the reunions and the partying and the tailgating; it really does extend to the most intimate and most personal, important aspects of every alum’s life — his or her family.”

Jessica Farmwald is from Wakarusa, Indiana, and was editor of Scholastic this past school year. The Hospital Support Program’s toll-free number sf 877-435-7086.