The family behind Fitch Lumber & Hardware is on a mission to make pediatric rehabilitation care available to all local children, including their son
By Elizabeth Kane | Photography by Sarah Martin, Fancy This Photography
Lee Fitch has come a long way since a life-altering accident threw his entire world in disarray. The 10-year-old boy was struck by a moving vehicle on a residential road in Chapel Hill last March – a tragic accident that broke Lee’s ribs, back and skull. It also left him with a severe concussion.
Although Lee was stabilized in the pediatric intensive care unit at UNC Children’s after his accident, there was a long road to recovery ahead for him. “There became a point in Lee’s healing process [when] we were informed by the physician that we needed to go elsewhere for rehabilitation … that they did not offer [the rehabilitation he needed] at Chapel Hill, Duke or Wake Forest [hospitals],” says Meredith Fitch, Lee’s mother. “We left Chapel Hill and went to [Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta]. Lee’s recovery there was amazing,” she says. “He received therapy there all day, every day.”
Meredith explains that getting the help Lee needed in Atlanta meant that Lee’s father, David Fitch, had to leave work for weeks at a time (David, president of Fitch Lumber & Hardware, had already missed work from being at the hospital after Lee’s accident). “That also meant having to leave Virginia, our 13-year-old, so that we could provide support for Lee,” Meredith says. “The distance provided challenges.”
Meredith says that during her son’s healing process, the family began to think deeply about the road ahead. “Once Lee started healing, we began to pray,” she says. “Our son is alive. He’s going to live. We don’t know what his limitations may be, but we want to help others. … We didn’t know what direction we would be led.”
The Fitch family received a phone call from UNC Children’s while they were still in Atlanta. “UNC Children’s said they had been contacted by some donors … [who] wanted to give the seed funding to start a pediatric rehab [there] in Lee’s honor.” They felt as if their prayers had been answered.
Sally Brown, the wife of Mack Brown, UNC’s head football coach, says she’s known the Fitches for a very long time. Now, the couple is working with the family to make the Fitch Family Comprehensive Pediatric Rehabilitation Program at UNC Children’s a reality. “There’s an extraordinary need for this, and this entire community owes the Fitch family so much for all they’ve given to us,” Sally says. “We wouldn’t have all our beautiful homes without them. I think we all just need to get together and decide that we need to make this happen.”
The new pediatric rehabilitation program will be a $20 million project – one of the main challenges to creating it, Sally says, is the funding. “We need to raise a lot of money,” she says. “That’s going to be our biggest hurdle.
“All of us have been so spoiled by living in a place that has world-class medical facilities that we just all assumed [were] available here,” Sally says. “Then, it hit so close to home with Lee, not being able to get his rehabilitation done in a local setting. … The family had to be split up. It was so difficult. I think all of us were surprised at the lack of the resources … here. And as hard as it was for the Fitches, they did have the resources to be able to [relocate temporarily to Atlanta] – so many people wouldn’t be able to do that. So, I think it’s important that we know that all children have this available to them here.”
Dr. Joshua Alexander, the director of pediatric rehabilitation and chair for the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UNC School of Medicine, says the Fitches are “truly game-changers,” and it’s obvious how important this project is to them. “It’s a program that’s going to change the lives of so many children and families across the state and the Southeast region,” he says. “The overall goal is to provide comprehensive, coordinated rehabilitation care from a multitude of health care providers – physicians, therapists, nurses, nutritionists, neuropsychologists and many others – that really helps every child have the best chance at recovering from their acute illness or injury, and then grow up as happy, healthy and independent as possible.”
Dr. Elizabeth Barton, assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, agrees. “When Dr. Alexander and I first got that news, we just had happy tears because we knew how big of a need that was and how profound of an impact that a center like that would have for the area and for the children,” she says. “We were really astounded by the Fitch family and their dedication and desire to change the current offerings for kids here.”
For his part, Lee, who turned 11 in February, says that he was very sad when he heard he had to leave his family, sister and dog, Peaches, to go to Atlanta to seek rehabilitation treatment. But he says all the consistent therapies helped him: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, music therapy, art therapy and even pet therapy (the latter being his favorite since he loves dogs). He describes Atlanta’s rehab center in detail – a place with good food, a sports area, an arcade-like game station, a little library and a tiny aquarium. “It was fun,” Lee says. “That’s exactly why we need one here.”