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Father Of 2's Dying Wish Sets Up Future Cancer Patients' Families With Healing Flats

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A Twin Cities father fighting cancer pledged to make it easier for hospital patients in the middle of their own health struggles. WCCO is sharing the heartbreak and the hope leading some of the sick at Mayo Clinic to Healing Flats.

"I want Healing Flats to be a place where people feel at home," Chen Mellema said.

From the pictures to the pillow cases, comfort is tangible inside a townhouse in southeast Rochester. One where a widow and now single mom looks back on what got her here.

"Mike called me at work when he got the diagnosis, and he's like 'Chen, it's cancer,'" Mellema recalled.

Chen and Mike Mellema met at the University of Minnesota. They married in 2007. In 2014, with a 1-year-old and 3-year-old at home, and juggling a Master's degree, Mike Mellema understandably felt tired.

"He ended up finding a lump on his left side. Got a biopsy the day after he finished student teaching and the next day found out it was medullary thyroid cancer," Chen Mellema said.

It was stage 3 cancer that Mike Mellema would fight at Mayo Clinic, with surgeries, radiation, chemo, and drug trials. World-class care from a medical team and doctor who Chen Mellema says refused to give up.

"The advocacy that he gave Mike gave him two extra years and that's the difference between Lucy being 5 and Lucy being 7. That's what he gave my kids, tangible memories that they had with their dad," she said.

All tolled, the Mellemas visited Mayo hundreds of times, sometimes scrambling to find a hotel room or rental, often hitting the road for the long trip home to save money.

The Mellema Family - Healing Flats
(credit: Chen Mellema)

"Every surgery we were here every few days at a shot, every doctor's visit, every day for radiation for five weeks in a row. We know the trip from the cities to Rochester really, really well," she said.

When they learned Mike Mellema didn't have much time left last year, he told his wife of his new plan: a place for patients to stay at little cost, to have privacy to recharge, and feel as blessed as they'd been in their own battles.

"I said, 'Yeah, that would be really great. I wonder what we should call it?' He said, 'I think we should call it Healing Flats,'" Chen Mellema recalled.

As a patient navigator at Mayo Clinic, Angela Young knows the challenge of connecting families with affordable lodging.

"It's definitely needed," Young said of Healing Flats. "I'm happy to add them as another resource for our patients coming to the cancer center."

Chen Mellema believes it was her husband's faith that sustained him to leave this legacy.

"What he put together we're sitting in now. I think he truly held on to do every little thing he thought was important," she said.

The Mellamas raised more than $100,000 in donations to buy the property, filing for nonprofit status days before Mike Mellema died last December at 38.

"To share the joy and the hope in the midst of all the bad medical news, we wanted to be able to share that with other people," Chen Mellema said.

Healing Flats charges just as much as it costs to keep the lights on. They welcomed their very first patient this month.

Chen Mellema would love to buy more properties to provide for more patients down the road. To learn more about how you can help, click here.

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