At RV park, home and care go side by side News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC) Durham News A1
Elizabeth Shestak Correspondent
Finding out he had cancer was only the start of Neil Gragg’s problems.
The doctor in Wilmington didn’t know what he could do for Gragg’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He mainly wanted to make the 52-year-old as comfortable as possible, Gragg said.
Gragg had to come all the way to Durham to find someone willing to treat his stage 4 cancer. However, getting to his chemotherapy at Duke University Hospital, after driving from Wilmington every three weeks, was not something he could fit easily into his schedule — or his checkbook, for that matter.
Gragg found a solution to at least some of his worries in a secluded recreational vehicle park not 10 minutes from the hospital. Birchwood RV Park, located on the Orange and Durham County line on Wilkins Drive, caters especially to Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill hospital patients and their families, offering reduced rates for longer stays. Hospital patients also have priority for available sites, though they are unable to take reservations in advance since many don’t know how long their stay will be.
Now Gragg and his wife make the 2.5-hour drive from the shore every few weeks and are able to stay in what is literally a home away from home. They keep their RV in the park all month and drive up in a separate car for his treatments. It is the most cost-effective arrangement they can make, he said, since every time he comes they stay two days since he becomes so ill from the treatment.
“It’s cheaper by far to just pay them by the month,” he said. They can even bring their pups Bo and Annie along — something many hotels won’t allow.
Birchwood has been around for more than 40 years, said Jay Murray, the park’s owner, but many folks don’t know about it aside from its listing in Trailer Life magazine. Nestled on 40 acres surrounded by Duke Forest, there are over 100 sites, some of which are occupied by mobile homes. Many sites have water, electricity and sewage hookups, but some are available for “dry parking”. Rentals can be arranged, and there is free wireless Internet and a laundry facility onsite.
But most people will tell you that it’s not the amenities that make Birchwood special; it’s Thanh Pham, the park’s manager, who brings heart to the operation.
Pham lives on the grounds in his own mobile home with his wife and three children. He came from Vietnam as a boat person, going three weeks without food or water, he said. He moved from a less safe area of Durham to Birchwood after his first daughter was born 16 years ago and it wasn’t long before his helpful nature led to a position as park manager. Pham knows firsthand what it’s like to face death and experience pain – he lost his parents and siblings after the war ended in Vietnam and can relate to the families in Birchwood who lose a loved one. He is a survivalist, Murray said, and people trust him.
This is evident when he knocks on the trailer’s doors, immediately asking whoever answers how they are doing with his Vietnamese accent, which now hints of a Southern twang. Everyone was pleased to see him, and many had stories of Pham’s helpfulness.
Gragg attributes his improved outlook on life to Pham, who unknowingly gave Gragg the advice he needed. Gragg mentioned he was depressed about his diagnosis. He was just beginning eight months of chemo and felt grim.
“Hey, nobody knows how long we’ve got, only the person in charge of this knows how long we’ve got,” Pham told him. “We don’t have a clue.”
Gragg regained his spirits, and perspective, after hearing Pham talk about what he endured in Vietnam.
“This campground here is really a God’s blessing,” said Charles Holloway, who is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer at Duke. He and his wife, Robbie, have been coming to Birchwood twice a year since 2000 for checkups, but are now staying for nearly three months while Charles goes through extended treatment. The couple love the self-sufficiency that comes with their massive Holiday RV (they even have a washer and dryer on board), but Birchwood offers more than just a place to dump their sewage.
“I’ve never felt like I wasn’t safe in this place,” Charles said, which he appreciates when his wife has to come home alone if he needs to spend the night at the hospital.
Though the park caters to hospital patients, patrons of Birchwood hail from many backgrounds and various parts of the world. Just last weekend there was an Australian man and his wife who had a number of gigs in the Triangle doing their workshops on the didgeridoo — an Aboriginal instrument believed to have medicinal powers.
Other guests included a Canadian traveling nurse who is stationed at Durham Regional Hospital for at least three months, and a couple from Houston who are staying 18 months while the husband works on a local project involving Progress Energy.
Some stay years, as was the case with George and Pat Keith, who started their RVing days in Seattle and eventually wound up here. The couple lived in Birchwood for a number of years and liked Durham so much they gave up the traveling life for a permanent home on the north side of town.
For Murray, however, it’s the patients who really make the park something worth working for. His uncle opened the park after he spent time as a traveling engineer in the ’50s and ’60s. He had a hard time finding a safe, affordable place to stay while on the road, and decided to open just such a facility. Soon afterward, he noticed that many folks at Duke Hospital experienced the same dilemma he had.
“They all want one thing,” Murray said. “They just want a good, safe place to live.”
If you don’t have an RV or are interested in a mobile home, Pham or Murray can help arrange a rental.
They can accommodate up to 300 people at any given time.
Robbie, left, and Charles Holloway, right, visit neighbor Nancy Word, center, in Birchwood RV Park. The Holloways are from Florida and spend time here when Charles gets checkups at Duke University Hospital for his prostate. Word, from Texas, is here because her husband’s work involves travel in the area.