Christopher’s Haven gives cancer patients a home away from home
By Meaghan Casey
North Carolina native Griffin Lynch, 19, is thriving as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he is studying biochemistry, rowing and enjoying the normalcy of dorm life.
Yet just two years ago, Lynch had one goal – not college, but survival.
During the fall of his senior year at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a prestigious public boarding school, Lynch was diagnosed with a tangerine-size, malignant tumor in the left ventricle of his brain. He underwent surgery, which removed 80 percent of the tumor, but awoke unable to speak, swallow or move his right side. Complications arose that left him legally blind, and he spent the next five weeks in neurointensive care and four weeks in a rehab hospital, where he made great strides with speech, physical, occupational and recreational therapy.
Removal of the remaining 20 percent of his tumor required eight weeks of proton beam radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the few medical facilities in the country to offer the procedure. Unlike traditional photon radiation, proton radiation has no entry or exit dose, which minimizes the damage to surrounding healthy tissue. However, because it was considered outpatient treatment, the task of finding an affordable, convenient place to live for the next two months was daunting.
“Even with the patient discount, area hotels averaged well over $200 per night and didn’t offer kitchenettes – an important factor for Griffin whose weight dipped to 118 pounds on his 6'4 frame,” said his mother, Eileen O’Flaherty. “Other options were too far away for someone who was still wheelchair-bound and needed to be back and forth to the hospital for treatment and therapy appointments as often as five times a day.”
“It was overwhelming,” she continued. “I would do absolutely anything for my child, so we would have found a way, probably by selling our house.”
Luckily, there was another option. Christopher’s Haven, set up by three-time cancer survivor Dan Olsen, provides families with affordable and comfortable living space adjacent to Mass. General’s cancer treatment center, at just $30 per night. Since 2006, it has provided housing for more than 150 young cancer patients and their families. Located in the West End Apartments of Emerson Place, the fully-furnished studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments are equipped with kitchens, dining areas and a common area for socialization.
“It’s such an amazing place,” said Lynch. “It definitely played the biggest role in my recovery. I’m so grateful to everyone there.”
Lynch resided in one of the apartments with his mother, who took a leave from her job as an administrative assistant at UNC Greensboro. Though he was nearly 900 miles from home and separated from his father and two younger siblings, he was able to find solace in his new surroundings and create lifelong bonds with many of the residents there.
“There was another girl there who was one year younger than me, so it was a huge comfort to be able to spend time with someone my age, going though the same thing,” he said.
“The emotional support we received from the staff and other families at Christopher’s Haven was perhaps as important as its convenience and affordability,” said O’Flaherty. “We quickly bonded with the other families, sharing the highs and lows of dealing with our children’s treatment while being so far from home. We laughed and cried together, watched each other’s children, ran each other’s errands, celebrated Christmas and rang in the New Year filled with hope for our children’s health.”
After the eight weeks of treatment, Griffin returned home for his third trimester and was able to graduate from high school on time. He completed the speech and occupational therapy sessions that spring and continued with physical therapy through the fall of 2010. He started rowing, participated in two regattas, enrolled in community college and submitted college applications for admission for the fall of this year. He was accepted to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he joined the men’s crew team and is doing well academically, all while continuing to battle blindness.
Last spring, he returned to Boston for a successful check-up at Mass. General and visited with the staff at Christopher’s Haven.
“The team there continues to follow him, emotionally and socially,” said O’Flaherty. “They’re just gifted, loving people.”
The timing of the visit coordinated with another memorable moment – cheering on O’Flaherty in the Boston Marathon, through which she raised nearly $11,000 for Christopher’s Haven.
“I decided to run to raise funds to ensure that Christopher's Haven is there for other families in need,” she said. “I feel a tremendous debt to Christopher's Haven for the role it played in Griffin's recovery and in maintaining our family’s sanity. The proton beam therapy saves lives, but if you can’t access it, it’s worthless. Christopher’s Haven is like the key that unlocks the door to the magic cure.”