Story by David Nye
Army veteran Thomas Queen was pursuing Signal Corps training when he suddenly started having serious memory problems that made training nearly impossible. He had to switch jobs to complete his enlistment and then served in Vietnam before getting out and heading home to Virginia.
That was where he reunited with Michelle. Their families had been friends for years, but Michelle and Thomas had never dated. When he had another rash of medical issues, his sister called Michelle to ask for her help. The Veterans Affairs hospital initially diagnosed it as a stroke and Michelle helped him recover.
Thomas was a noted ladies’ man at the time, so Michelle’s duties included telling visitors that Thomas couldn’t go out until he got better. But as she nursed her old family friend back to health, the two grew closer together and fell in love, eventually marrying.
For years, they built a life together, interrupted by occasional neurological episodes diagnosed as strokes, until an emergency visit to the medical center where the physician had just completed training to spot multiple sclerosis (MS). He ordered tests and quickly identified the previous strokes as episodes of MS.
“At first, I cried,” Thomas said. “I thought back to, throughout the military, getting called names because I failed my course, my signals course that I wanted so bad.”
Ultimately, the diagnosis brought clarity and peace. The effects of a bad MS attack are literally crippling. Michelle and the medical staff had to help him re-learn how to walk, talk, and recognize his bodily functions. But unlike previous times, they now knew what medicines would help prevent future attacks and slow the disease’s progress.
Thomas and Michelle have been together for 40 years, supporting each other through MS and multiple cancer diagnoses. Michelle has since beaten cancer twice, but it was during Thomas’ cancer fight that they stayed at a Fisher House for the first time after years of using hotels or making long drives back and forth from home.
“Then he was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer six years ago,” Michelle said. “And that’s when we started to stay at the Fisher House, and that’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to us.”
They had heard of Fisher House before and knew it was free but were surprised by both how lovely the Washington D.C. VA Fisher House is as well as the quality of the community that they found. Thomas needed three months of chemotherapy and radiation but wasn’t the only veteran fighting cancer there. Michelle found a group of wives supporting each other. They would often work together to make dinners at the house.
“I cry when I think about the times that I’ve had with other families before the pandemic,” Michelle said. “We would get together, and we would come up with meals, and we would say, ‘Okay, I’ll fry the chicken,’ and someone else would do the corn, and somebody else would do whatever. Food is nourishment to the heart and having those people to be able to talk to, to help me, meant so much.”
The group would also bake desserts, play games, or watch TV together. They even share life events, like the births of their two grandchildren, with the other families and the house manager, Stacey Childs.
That sense of community has continued as Thomas and Michelle return repeatedly to the Washington D.C. VA Fisher House.