The Dream is Born

Gretchen Lizza and her children

Capt. Gretchen Lizza reads to her son, Tony, and daughter, Ali. Tony’s struggle with leukemia led Lizza to help establish Nightingale House, a facility providing affordable living quarters and a comforting atmosphere to seriously ill patients and their family members.

The first compassionate care house in the Department of Defense was the dream of a scientist at the Armstrong Aerospace Medical Research Lab at Wright-Patterson on a humanitarian assignment.

Captain Gretchen Lizza thought of the idea for the Nightingale House when her son, Tony, was diagnosed with leukemia. In the months of initial therapy, Gretchen met many families with similar circumstances. They were in shock, emotionally overwhelmed and facing long hospital stays for their loved ones. They also had the added burden of not having an affordable place to stay.

Gretchen saw the need for a home-away-from­-home. She took her idea to Colonel Dennis P. Tewel, Commander of the 2750th Air Base Wing, and convinced him of the need. Her idea for an on-base version of the Ronald McDonald House was taken all the way to the Pentagon. After months of work, authority was obtained for an existing duplex on base to be redesigned and remodeled and in May 1990 the house was ready to become a home for visiting families.

The house needed a name that conveyed its special purpose. “Nightingale,” a name synonymous with tender, loving care, and the nickname for the C-9 medical evacuation transport plane, was the perfect fit. So the dream of the Nightingale House became a reality.

With the opening of Fisher House II in April 2011, the Nightingale House was returned to the military and demolished.

Even though the Fisher Houses are located on federal installations or at major Veterans Affairs Medical Centers, they, like Ronald McDonald Houses, have no corporate or government underwriting and must rely on private donations for operating expenses. But unlike the Ronald McDonald Houses, which are limited to families of critically ill children, the Fisher Houses accept families of patients of all ages.

Guests come from all branches of the military, active duty, retired and reserves. They have come from as far away as overseas and as close as here in the Miami Valley.

Captain Lizza’s motto for the Nightingale House was quite simple, “If all hands that reach could touch.” To her that meant by reaching out and touching someone, you can make a difference in their life. We are all thankful that she took that time, in the midst of her personal tragedy, to reach out and touch so many families in need.

Even after the Lizzas retired from the Air Force in 1993 they continued to stay in contact with the House managers and volunteers. In August of 1996, her son Tony lost his battle with leukemia. Today, Gretchen and Carl are keeping Tony’s memory and legacy alive through “Tony’s Gang,” a non-profit organization founded to support children with serious illness and their families (www.tonysgang.com).

The Lizzas hope to educate people about the needs and challenges of families facing a serious illness. They want to train those who want to help but don’t know how to act or what to do. Finally, they hope to foster what they call a “kid-to-kid” network of support. They felt that Tony lived longer than many of his peer group in part because of the support he had.

The national headquarters of Tony’s Gang opened in Philadelphia in support of Children’s Hospital. The Lizzas took their tragedy and built something positive and lasting from it. In their eyes, it gives added meaning to their son’s life.