ARIZONA AVENUE — Celia Myers was already struggling to make ends meet when a doctor broke the devastating news that she has lupus.
Relying on Social Security payments and income from the occasional part-time job to support the family, the single-mother of two children from Bakersfield was met with a financial challenge when doctors advised that she receive treatment in the Los Angeles area.
The 50-year-old faced a dilemma, unable to afford the overnight accommodations or make the exhausting round-trip drive in one day by herself because of the painful effects from the auto-immune disorder.
Myers contacted the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital where she was referred for treatment, informed by its social services director about a program in which families of patients in financial need could stay for free at one of the local participating hotels.
Last August, Myers checked in for a complimentary room at The Ambrose, just a few blocks away from the hospital, visiting the doctor the following day before heading back to Bakersfield. While she was only in town for 24 hours, it made all the difference in the world for a patient dealing with swollen joints and fatigue.
“If you have to go back and forth, there’s only so much you can do before you need to reach out for help,” she said.
Earlier this month, eight different hotels who have provided free rooms to patients and their families through the “Room at the Inn” program were honored during a luncheon hosted by the medical center.
The program started around 1999 with the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, which offered a similar service in another community. Hotels were added to the providers list as more out-of-town patients began seeking treatment at the hospital and requests for rooms grew.
Since 2005, the Fairmont Miramar has accommodated 43 families for approximately 93 room nights.
“By participating in this program we are able to give back to the community and help those families in need during difficult times,” Ellis O’Connor, the general manager of the Fairmont Miramar, said in a statement.
The roster includes hotels in close proximity to the hospital, such as The Ambrose and Best Western Gateway, and luxury accommodations near the beach, like Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel and Shutters on the Beach. Other program participants include the Hotel Carmel, Casa del Mar, and Doubletree Guest Suites.
The Best Western Gateway, which has already been providing complimentary rooms for families in need at nearby St. John’s Health Center, joined about five years ago.
“It’s a great cause and being part of the community is very important to us,” Hany Sabongy, the general manager at the Best Western Gateway, said.
Request for rooms first go through Gail Abarbanel, the director of social services for the hospital, who, after determining the family’s need, then contacts Jean McNeil Wyner, the community liaison for the hospital. Wyner then contacts the various hotels to see which one has a room available.
Approximately 150-200 families have been assisted over the life of the program. Gladstone’s Restaurant in Malibu has also donated gift cards to families.
“Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital has always been a community hospital and this is a reflection of what the community really means — people coming together to help others who need assistance,” Abarbanel said. “Our patients get help not just in the hospital, but within our community.”
More than 30 families were accommodated in 2008.
Myers said she hopes the program will continue to provide for other families who need help.
She still has bad days when her blood pressure drops and jumps to dangerous levels, forcing Myers to stop working temporarily. While two doctors have advised she return to Santa Monica, Myers is hoping to find treatment in Bakersfield.
But if she does return, Myers said she will look to the program for help again.
“I pray this program will continue to help others who are out of town from UCLA,” she said.