Bethesda, Md. — An offhand comment by a Jewish cancer patient from Boca Raton will soon help dozens of hospitalized men and women who come here for treatment at the National Institutes of Health.

Moshe Applebaum, a transportation company owner who has driven to NIH from Florida three times in the last two years to take part in the institution’s life-saving medical studies, has gotten housing each time – typically an unused basement apartment in the home of a Jewish family who lives in the area – and other forms of physical and spiritual help from the Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington (bikurcholimgw.org), a 19-year-old, independent chesed organization. “I could not afford a hotel.”

“It would be nice,” Applebaum said in a phone conversation last year with Audrey Siegel, the Bikur Cholim’s executive director, “if you had something across the street.” In other words, somewhere NIH patients and their family members and other caregivers could stay while the patient undergoes sometimes-lengthy treatments.

While no one keeps exact figures, a large number of Jews come annually from around the world for treatment at NIH, which offers experimental, often risky, usually last-ditch treatments, part of federally funded research studies. “In the last several years we have seen an explosion of need as more families come to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to participate in clinical trials … at ‘America’s Research Hospital,’” the Bikur Cholim website states. “These trials often represent a patient’s only hope for meaningful treatment or cure for grave illness.”

NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health that bills itself as “one of the world’s foremost medical research centers,” conducting about 1,600 research studies each year.

The main campus in Bethesda is about seven miles northwest of Washington.

Siegel, a New York City native, had previously thought of establishing a bikur cholim (Hebrew for “visiting the sick”) house near the sprawling NIH campus, but was unsuccessful. There were no nearby houses for sale. “There was nothing on the market for years,” she said.

Inspired by her conversation with Applebaum, Siegel tried looking again. Serendipity struck. Within two weeks she found a house for sale. “The house had just gone on the market.” Asking price: about $960,000. The Bikur Cholim organization put in a bid. After negotiations, fundraising, a bridge loan, a “major” donation from an anonymous supporter and a successful appeal for a zoning variance, Bikur Cholim bought the three-story house in a matter of months. After extensive renovation, the Bernard Creeger Bikur Cholim House, named for a philanthropist who died last year, will open formally later this year (it had a soft opening in June), after conducting a $3 million fundraising campaign.

Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington’s Rikki Reifer stresses that the house is open to Jews of all stripes. Steve Lipman

While such bikur cholim residences serve members of the Jewish community in many cities, including New York City and Baltimore, Bethesda’s will be the first one at NIH.

“Patients and their caregivers often experience stress related to their medical condition, being far from home and being separated from family and friends,” said Kathy Baxley, chief of the NIH clinical center social work department. Often, patients have exhausted all other avenues of medical care and they arrive at the clinical center as a last resort.

“Community-based organizations such as Bikur Cholim are a vital part of the social support network,” Baxley said in an e-mail interview. “Bikur Cholim provides concrete resources … in an environment that supports patients’ spiritual and social needs, allowing them to remain focused on the medical care they receive.”

The Bikur Cholim House, within walking distance of NIH, is geared to observant members of the Jewish community – kosher food and other services that serve the needs of Jewish patients are not available at NIH, and the nearest hotel is a few miles away – but is open on a non-sectarian basis, said Rikki Reifer, director of special programs. The organization has offered its services in past years to many Christians, and a Druze from Israel, she said.

While “our staff is Orthodox … most of our volunteers are Orthodox.” The Bikur Cholim House accepts anyone “who needs help,” Reifer said.

The aluminum-siding house, whose backyard includes a gazebo and small vegetable garden, has five bedrooms – ideal for 10 guests at a time. Each provides optimum privacy. There’s a small dining room for the times when guests are in the mood for company, and a newly installed kosher kitchen, under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, to make the meals that the organization delivers to homebound people every week.

The organization also stocks kosher pantries at other area hospitals, lends medical equipment, drives patients to medical appointments in Washington and its nearby suburbs and offers continuing education to hospital professionals about the special needs of Jewish patients.

A Bikur Cholim House near NIH eliminates the need for patients and the people who accompany them here to drive or travel by taxi to appointments, or for Bikur Cholim staff to arrange transportation.

Siegel and Reifer are the organization’s only full-time employees; there’s also a part-time chaplain. A staff member will always be on call at the “home away from home,” making the site prepared to respond to any guest’s needs immediately, Reifer said.

Other services in the house include WiFi, a fully stocked kitchen, a small Judaica library and limited financial assistance. Prayer minyans can be arranged when needed. “Anything patients need,” Reifer said.

With some 400 volunteers, Bikur Cholim can offer translation help in Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish, Spanish and Farsi.

Bikur Cholim does not charge for any of its services. “We believe that the patient should be able to focus on recovery, without worrying about financial stress,” said Reifer, who formerly served as a volunteer.

Without the Bikur Cholim House, where would members of the Jewish community stay when they come to NIH for treatment?

“Where they do now,” Reifer said — “they stay at hotels, which is expensive.”

Moshe Applebaum said he hopes he will be able to attend the Bikur Cholim House’s dedication ceremony.

Afterwards, he said, he may need to stay there. “I’m still at NIH,” part of an ongoing research study, an outpatient for two or three weeks at a time. In addition to inspiring the Bikur Cholim House, Applebaum said, “there’s a very good possibility that I’ll benefit from it.”

steve@jewishweek.org