During the long days and nights that Lillian Beretta spent at the hospital with her husband Joe during his heart surgeries, they often noticed the other families in the cardiac critical care unit.
The Berettas were living in Nashville. So when Joe had extended stays at Vanderbilt University Medical Center or needed frequent visits there to monitor his VAD heart implant, it was an easy commute from their house. But as they looked around at the hospital and spoke with other patients, they realized how uncommon it was to be so close to home.
“You couldn’t help but walk down the hall and see what was happening in the rooms,” Beretta remembers. Many patients were alone or were with a single, often exhausted, caregiver.
“Our room had family and friends and food and activities,” she says, “and it was such a huge difference that you couldn’t walk by and have it not affect you. So we just started asking questions.”
The Berettas found that only three percent of hospitals in the U.S. do VAD implantation, so practically everyone in need of this care must travel. For many families, the expense makes it impossible. Beyond the high cost of their medical care, families must pay for long-distance travel to and from home and find temporary housing near the hospital.
“Hospitals require you to stay a certain distance when you have this procedure done,” Beretta says, “not only for one week, but multiple weeks.”
Beretta was raised in Pittsburgh in a family that prioritized helping others. Once she married Joe and settled in Nashville, that habit only grew.
“Joe and I, our home was always kind of a place people would run to. We always had somebody living with us, we always were doing something. It’s just part of our nature,” she tells NEXTpittsburgh. “So when Joe passed, we were like, ‘No. We’re going to do something. Something has to change and we can bring that change about.”
Beretta and her brother, Angelo Roman, began the work of launching The Joe Beretta Foundation in 2016 to support patients having VAD implantations at Vanderbilt.
They cover as many of the non-medical costs as they can for patient families who are struggling with these financial burdens. The foundation’s staff often gets creative: They have helped pay a patient’s mortgage payment, so that person could afford to pay their medical bills.
“It’s not always somebody’s that’s in huge financial trouble,” Beretta says. “In Nashville, we had a family that, they were doing fine but they were a little behind. They needed just a little bit of assistance. They applied and thank God, we were able to say, ‘Yes, no problem.’”
At one point, The Joe Beretta Foundation paid for driving lessons and a driver’s license for a patient’s wife who had never driven before. This made it possible for her to visit her husband and take him to appointments during his recovery.
“The caregiver is such a critical person to helping the patient get better. If the patient is worried about where’s the caregiver going to sleep or how they’re going to get there or is the electric bill going to be paid at home, it hinders their recovery,” Roman says. “If we can step in and take care of all that for them, then we know they can concentrate on getting better.”
And at this time of year, the foundation also brings gifts (and where possible, meals and desserts) to lift the spirits of patients and their families.
This fall, Beretta and Roman returned to their Pittsburgh roots by expanding their work to help patients treated here at UPMC, working with UPMC’s social workers to find patients most in need. After hosting a kickoff luncheon in the fall, they’re presenting their first major event in Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day.
The thinking is this: Many couples will spend money on a fancy dinner on Feb. 14, and will likely spend a bit more on roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. What if, instead, they bought tickets for a beautiful night of dinner and dancing in the grand ballroom at the Omni William Penn Hotel, where their money will go toward helping struggling heart patients and their families?
The event will include dinner, a silent auction and live music by local band No Bad JuJu.
“We plan to make it an annual event,” Roman says. “Come celebrate with us, come celebrate Valentine’s Day with your loved one and at the same time raise money for a cause that helps people who are going through probably the most difficult time in their life. We’ll make sure you have a good time while you’re doing that.”