Heather James is the administrator and founder of Back Home Again, Inc., a home healthcare agency based out of Valparaiso. | Supplied photo
At a glance
Back Home Again, Inc. is located at 291 N. State Road 2, Valparaiso. For more info, call (219) 477-4333 or email HeatherJamesBHA@myfrontiermail.com.
Updated: August 15, 2013 2:42AM
“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.”
— Jim Valvano
Heather James is administrator and sole proprietor of Back Home Again Inc. It is a home healthcare service in Valparaiso.
James, 42, is married to Jeff; they live in Washington Township and have two children, ages 18 and 14. Heather grew up in South Haven and graduated from Portage High School. Her maiden name is Sullivan.
James didn’t plan on operating her own home healthcare agency; she did it out of necessity.
“I went to Ivy Tech in Valpo for nursing; I’m an LPN,” she said. “I have a brother who works here; he’s an RN.”
What did your father do for a living?
“He was a maintenance supervisor at Whispering Pines Nursing Home. In 1993, Dad was involved in a boiler explosion at Whispering Pines. It left him paralyzed from the neck down. He had to be on a ventilator. His biggest fear was to be put in a nursing home; he knew how short-staffed they were.”
Did your father have his back to the boiler when it exploded?
“He was facing it. It was a very old boiler; he went to reset it because the heat was out. When he hit the reset valve it exploded. The blast threw him against a concrete wall and his neck was broken. The shrapnel from the front of the boiler was wrapped around his chest.”
It’s a miracle he survived.
“He was 51 when the accident occurred. The doctors said the fact that he weighed 300 pounds saved his life. The impact would’ve killed a smaller man.
“Dad spent 17 weeks in ICU at Porter (Memorial Hospital). From there, we went up to the (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago). I had to learn all of his care. My mom had to learn all of his care. At that time, I wasn’t a nurse.”
The situation had to be extremely difficult for everyone.
“As a kid, you don’t see your dad naked. He was dependent on me. I had to learn to put a (catheter) in him, do (tracheostomy) care... . After a year of being inside different hospitals, he was able to come home because it was a (Workers’ Compensation) claim.”
“I became a nurse. In 2002, the insurance company, after having so many issues with the home care company we had, told me, ‘We want you to take over all of your dad’s care or you do none of it.’ He needed 24-hour care.”
“My dad’s Workers’ Comp company paid me to take care of him. I hired some friends of mine who were nurses and I hired some aides.”
How did that work out?
“My father’s case manager from Workers’ Comp said, ‘I need to see your license.’ I gave him my nursing license. He said, ‘No, you have to be a licensed home health agency to do this because you’re hiring other people. You need to make this a business. I called the State of Indiana and asked them to send me a business license.”
The state’s response?
“They sent me a 5,000-page application to become a home health agency. By the grace of God, we were able to become licensed; we passed our survey.
“In 2005, we became Medicare-certified. At first, we were just servicing my father and two other patients. I had never thought of keeping Back Home Again as a business. I intended on servicing my dad, and never advertised or marketed. I was going to be done with it as soon as Dad passed away.”
Even the best laid plans...
“At the urging of my husband, I started advertising a little bit and we started to grow. In June of 2005, I took my dad, who was starting to decline, from his house into our home.”
Was he OK with that?
“Dad insisted on seeing where our office was before he moved in with us. So, with his nurse, and his vent, and his wheelchair, we brought him to our office, which was just down the street from my parents’ house in South Haven.
“While I showed him around, I noticed he was in tears. I said, ‘Dad, why are you crying?’ He said, ‘I am so proud of what you’ve done.’
“There I am, looking at my dad, who had been this big, strapping man all my life, crying while on a ventilator. I said, ‘Dad, the hardest thing for me is this success has come at your expense. You paid the price for everything I am today.’”
What did your father say to that?
“He said, ‘I would sit in this chair and live on this vent every day all over again to see what you have done.’”
“We didn’t have a great relationship when I was growing up. He was the breadwinner and the disciplinarian. Sometimes these tragedies tear families apart, it brought ours together. My dad learned how to wrap his heart around me because he couldn’t move his arms.”
Heather, honestly, if it was me, I don’t think I would’ve wanted to live in that condition.
“Jeff, I don’t think that I would want to live that way either. That was a big issue with us. We went back and forth with that. But you know what? It’s not my place to judge. Dad was totally with it upstairs. Even though he was confined to a wheelchair, he still could go out to dinner; he still could go to the casino. We did things together. He and I became very close.”
Your father’s final days?
“On June 28, 2005, he was taken out of our home to the hospital and he never made it back. He died that September. I had lost my father, my buddy, and my largest paying client. At that time, we only had 11 or 12 patients because I still hadn’t intended on keeping the business. But after my dad told me how proud he was of me, I knew I had to make the business grow.”
What did you do?
“I went to my knees inside of my office — in South Haven at the time — and I prayed. And then I started to market. In six weeks after my dad passed, we had recovered all of his money and had quadrupled our patient level.”
How many patients do you care for today?
“We have about 60 Medicare patients which is the bulk of our business. We also have a non-medical side which is not covered by Medicare. That’s my passion.”
Tell me more about the private duties.
“We service housekeeping, run errands, see that patients get to their doctor’s appointments — things like that.”
How many employees?
“We have 22 full-time employees and we’re in operation 24-7, 365. Word of mouth has been our greatest advertisement. We’re not the largest agency out there, but I don’t care to be the largest. I do want to remain the best. We want people to leave our service knowing that they were cared for.
“Jeff, one of the things I tell the staff is that I can teach paperwork to monkeys, but I can’t teach compassion. You either come with it or you don’t. You can’t teach honesty, integrity and compassion. And those are the three things we look for here.”
“Everything we do at Back Home Again is a tribute to Harold Sullivan.”