News - December 25, 2003

The spirit of a child lives on
Union Leader Correspondent

WINDHAM - For the man half asleep four years ago on that spine-jarring makeshift hospital cot, it’s the kind of dream that’ll never go away.

It was the dream of a dad whose newborn girl was quietly slipping away a few doors down, and with not a thing he could do about it.

"In the dream, I was talking with Devon, and I remember her saying to me, ‘I want to help other families,’ Tom Missert recalls of the daughter who’d gone without oxygen for 20 minutes during childbirth four days earlier. “I said ‘How?’ And she said, ‘You’ll know how.’ ”

Devon Nicole Missert would die the next day, and two families right away would learn how she could help — a pair of newborns with congenital heart conditions each getting the gift of life through one of Devon’s heart valves.

Next February, families in similar straits will also learn, as Missert and his wife, Deanna, open Devon Nicole’s House at Children’s Hospital in Boston, a sort of home-away-from-home for parents with kids logging long-term stays for critical care.

“I could have very easily crawled into a hole and simply not existed forever,” said Deanna Missert of the all but unbearable weeks and months that followed Devon’s death. “I knew I had a choice — to either lie in bed and cry all the time, or get back up and try to face the world again. I also had my three other children to think about. I chose to put my energy in a positive direction.”

After nearly four years of marathon fundraising from their Londonderry — and now Windham — home, the Misserts this week unveiled the fruit of that energy, an entire floor of apartments just two blocks away from Children’s Hospital on Autumn Street, capable of housing 14 families for short- or long-term stays based on needs, and with nominal rates of about $20-50 per night.

Hospital officials, meantime, say the project couldn’t come along at a better time as an estimated 70 to 80 families a night struggle to find shelter in a part of Boston where hotel space is both sparse and expensive, and those same makeshift hospital cots often go the way of a lottery.

“There’s a great expense to housing in Boston, and a great shortage particularly around the . . . medical area,” Children’s Hospital spokesman Susan Craig said. “It’s especially hard when you’re a family with a child in the hospital and you’re coming in from out of town. The last thing you want to worry about while you’re in the hospital is money or housing. Devon Nicole’s House will help us make a major dent in the hardships these families face.”

An offshoot of similar projects like the Ronald McDonald House, David’s House and the Cam Neely House at the New England Medical Center (the Misserts consulted the Neely family before embarking on their own idea), Devon Nicole’s House comes after one shelter where the Misserts stayed actually turned down a donation, encouraging them instead to launch a shelter of their own.

“It’s taken over our lives,” says Tom Missert, 39, who’ll leave his post as a health care industry recruiter at the end of the month to work full-time on the shelter. “But we know what it’s like to sleep on those cots. Going through this, you really understand how precious children are, how precious the gift of time is that you can spend with your kids.”

The cost of that gift: about $900,000 to renovate the fifth floor of 21 Autumn St., the Misserts responsible for about a third of it, and Children’s Hospital picking up the rest. It’s taken more than three years of silent auctions, golf tourneys, dances and dinner cruises — not to mention a recent anonymous New Hampshire donor of $100,000 — for the Misserts to get where they are now.

The couple still needs to raise about $100,000 more by opening day next February, not to mention an ongoing $80,000 a year for operating costs — funds they’re confident they can raise, and even drop the nominal fees, once Devon Nicole’s House opens and word spreads.

Some four years after enduring the greatest agony a parent can suffer, the Misserts are grateful for where they are now. Their large Windham home alight in Christmas decorations and buzzing with the sonorous strings of Christmas tunes, the pair has great hopes for the future; great hopes for the beautiful, healthy set of triplets Deanna had two years before Devon Nicole — kids she jokes keep her so busy that there’s little time to linger over the past.

“I don’t know if it makes me feel happy,” Deanna Missert says. “It’s not the kind of thing that makes you stand up and say, ‘Whoo, this is great.’ There are times where things are still really difficult. But at least this makes me feel that she won’t be forgotten.”

Or that Devon Nicole’s talk with her dad that night hasn’t gone unheeded.

“It’s the fulfillment of a dream that Devon gave to us and the fulfillment of a gift that she gave to other parents,” Missert says. “We’re not fooling ourselves into thinking it’s all taken care of that we can just stop working at this point. There’s a lot left to do. But there’s also a great sense of satisfaction.”

Those interested in donating to Devon Nicole’s House can contact the Misserts at 888-594-8354 or visit their Internet site at