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12 Who Care: Valerie Callahan sees life and death in her work, chooses to lead with a servant's heart

For nearly a decade, Callahan has overseen Gabriel House of Care, a home for patients in town for transplant surgery or cancer treatment at Mayo Clinic.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The topic of mortality is commonly shied away from, because let's face it: death is not easy to talk about. But in Valerie Callahan's line of work, mortality is a subject with a powerful and humbling presence.

Callahan is the Executive Director of Gabriel House of Care, a home that serves as a "Community of Healing" for people traveling into Jacksonville for mostly adult organ transplant surgery or cancer treatment.

"In here, we talk about (mortality) all the time. And it's right in your face," Callahan said. "The people that we help here, they think about it every moment that they walk."

Since it opened in 2011, Gabriel House of Care has been a safe space for people from around the country and world in what can be extremely trying times, for both the patient and the caregiver.

The home was founded after then-64-year old Jorge Bacardi received a double lung transplant at Mayo Clinic in March 2008. The following year, Bacardi learned about his donor, 19-year-old Christopher Gregory, a Loyola University student in New Orleans who died of a brain aneurysm.

Bacardi and his wife Leslie donated funds to Mayo Clinic to create a hospitality house, which became Gabriel House of Care. Callahan became Executive Director the year after its founding.

"I met with the board and they offered me the job the next morning, and at first I really didn't want it. But I felt like it was the right thing to do," Callahan said. "It's been extremely fulfilling as an individual."

For nearly a decade, Callahan has led the organization through a vision of empowerment, shaping Gabriel House into a hospitality home separate from the rest.

"A lot of hospital hospitality houses are small, and they're the home away from home. They're cute, they're sweet, they're loving. That was not the vision that I had when I got here. I mean, this is a place of power. You're dealing with life and death in this house," she said.  "In transplant, someone dies and someone lives. So when you're faced with that, it isn't about being sweet and kind. It's about we're dealing with an incredibly powerful part of each of our lives."

This year, impacts from COVID-19 have led to staff reductions and a lower capacity at the home. 

But Callahan said it was important to stay open, which they have.

"We could have shut down like other houses did. But what we realized was the need was still there," she said. "You can take these very, very vulnerable patients and their caregivers and put them in a hotel and increase their risk. Or we could have found a way to stay open." 

Callahan said 2020 has been a year of reflection for her and the team she works with, looking back on what they've accomplished in the growth of Gabriel House and narrowing their focus on what matters in their work.

"It's a tremendous blessing to come in here every day," she said. "To be able to walk with (the patients) in this journey, they're at a place where they need and want people to help them heal, and help them cope. It's not a hard thing to do, you just walk beside them as human beings."

And as for her place as a "12 Who Care" Community Service Award recipient, Callahan said what matters most to her is the impact she and her staff have on people who need a shoulder to lean on during their medical journeys.

"It's about this house and what happens in here. That means more to me than anything," Callahan said.

If you want to contribute to the work done by Callahan and her team at Gabriel House, the home is asking for donations as part of their "Angel Tree" program for the holiday season. Click here to learn more.