Medical workers isolate selves in RV parks to keep families safe

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Jake Lippert had to get away from his family out of love. So he moved out of his home and onto the driveway.

Lippert, 33, is a Lansing-based home-care therapist who spends his days treating patients who need rehab. Amid the punishing COVID-19 pandemic, he had tried to keep his distance from his wife and young daughter with asthma, isolating himself in a guest bedroom and sanitizing his clothing and shoes after shifts. 

Jake Lippert, a therapist from Lansing, receives use of an RV from Kim Carter of Leslie on Saturday.

Then last week that living arrangement changed when he happened upon a stranger with a safer solution: a 26-foot Coachmen Freedom Express RV just for him to use. It was delivered to his driveway, where he is camped out.

Lippert is among the medical workers across Michigan on the front lines of the crisis relocating to mobile homes, RVs and campers to keep their families safe. The idea is part of a global movement that began in March in Texas when two women launched the Facebook group "Rvs 4 MDs to Fight the Corona Virus."

"From day one, this has been such a crazy experiment to have random people just willing to part with a rather substantial investment for a question mark amount of time with a perfect stranger," said Lippert, whose RV arrived Saturday from a woman who lives near Jackson. "It is absolutely surreal."

The Facebook site is used to connect people willing to donate mobile homes and RVs to doctors, EMS and public safety workers and other first-responders looking for a safe space to quarantine and protect their families during the pandemic.

Jake Lippert, a Lansing therapist, receives use of an RV from Kim Carter of Leslie on Saturday.

In one month, the social media group has gained more than 29,000 members and helped connect more than 1,050 essential workers with accommodations throughout the United States as well as Canada, Australia and Dubai, said co-founder Holly Haggard. 

The effort began with a plea from Emily Phillips, a Texas resident and wife of an emergency room physician, who took to Facebook to ask friends and family for temporary housing solutions for her husband. A mutual friend connected Phillips to Haggard, who had a camper to loan out. The introduction sparked the first exchange. 

"I wasn't having any specific feelings when handing the keys over because it's ingrained in my head that's how everybody should be," said Haggard, a mortgage adviser and married mother of two. "It was just 'this is what we should do.'"

Certified nursing assistant unit clerk Kimberly Eckert and registered nurse Keisha Reed sit outside of Eckert's donated RV at the Water Tower RV Park, just down the street from the McLaren Lapeer Region Hospital where they work, in Lapeer.

To get started, RV donors and front-line workers have to join the Facebook group and fill out forms reviewed by the RVs for MDs volunteer team. Then, they can seek out matches in their cities and states. Once a match is made, donors and recipients work out arrangements. The program is donation-based and no money is exchanged. 

"It's become more than just matching," Haggard said. "It's become kind of like a ray of light."

Kim Carter of Leslie, located between Lansing and Jackson, said she happened upon the site on social media. She quickly decided to make the camper that she bought last year available and wound up matched with Lippert.

"It's a way of their life right now," she said. "They have to protect their families."

In the West Michigan city of Montague, Stephanie and Andrew Josefowicz run an Airbnb camper rental business. The couple donated all three of their campers to front-line workers. 

One was delivered to a paramedic in Muskegon, another to a respiratory therapist in Norton Shores and the third to a traveling nurse returning to Rockford from New Orleans, a state hard-hit by the virus. 

"It was just as simple as knowing there was a need, and that it was a need that we could fulfill," said Stephanie Josefowicz, who works in human resources for a local gas station chain. "Why not do a little bit of good."

In Lapeer, an unrelated call for help on social media spurred another round of generosity for medical workers at McLaren Lapeer Regional Hospital.

It began when Margaret Tompkins, a former nurse in Grand Blanc, noticed a Facebook post from a high school friend with asthma concerned about potential exposure from her husband, medical worker assigned to a hospital COVID-19 floor. 

A small parking area along M-24 highway that is dedicated for hospital personnel in donated RV's at the Water Tower RV Park in Lapeer.

Tompkins reached out and made arrangements to loan out her own camper to help.

She figured others were having the same worries and began posting on local social media pages to find out. Within days, she said she was coordinating deliveries to a handful of other medical staffers at a city-owned RV campground across from McLaren Lapeer.

The Water Tower RV Park has hosted more than a dozen nurses, doctors and medical aides at the site, most in donated campers or RVs. The city also switched on water access, free of charge, Tompkins said. 

"People contacted me through Facebook, had no idea who I was and had no idea who the nurses were and just said to me: 'Where do you want it and when do you want it?' " she said. "They just brought them and set them up."

Jack Stheiner, who manages the city-owned park, said it has 24 spots. The medical workers are scheduled to stay at least through April 30, he said. 

Keisha Reed, a registered nurse in McLaren Lapeer Region hospital's progressive care unit, was one of the first to find placement there.

With the rise of COVID-19 patients in Michigan, the mother of two daughters, ages 2 and 4, was worried about their safety and the health of her fiancé. 

"I just didn't want to keep coming home," said Reed of Davison. "I didn't want to take the chance with my kids."

Reed, 30, said it's been challenging for medical workers to cope with the crush of virus cases. But the outpouring of generosity from the community has been overwhelming. 

"The fact that these people are coming out and donating their campers, which are not cheap, to total strangers, it's really heart-warming," she said. "All of us here are very grateful."

Reed's co-worker and friend, Kimberly Eckert, a unit clerk nurse aide in McLaren Lapeer's intensive care unit, lives in North Branch with her parents and brother. 

The 26-year-old said she relocated to the campground to earlier this month. She didn't want to risk having her father, who has heart and lung issues, and diabetes contract the virus. 

"I want to be as far away as I can," she said. "I would never be able to live with myself if I brought this home."

Judy Bennett in Lapeer came through for Eckert, donating her 2016 motor home outfitted with a dinette, two TVs, a bed and couch. 

"If you can help, you've got to do what you can," Bennett said. "They've got a lot of courage."