Saturday, November 29, 2014

The House That Ronald Built

Today, as we wrap up Sidney's birthday week with a fun filled day of train rides, holiday festivities and friends, I want to pay homage to what, prior to his early birth, had been a little known organization to me. I first learned about the Ronald McDonald House of Portland, Maine during the early hours after Sidney's birth when we found ourselves facing the prospect of an extended hospital stay while hundreds of miles from our own home in Norfolk, Virginia. With no where to stay a hospital social worker introduced us to the RMH and all it offered to parents in their times of need.

Ronald McDonald Houses are the charitable arms of the ubiquitous golden arches chain. They provide shelter, support, and basic needs for families with sick or hospitalized children. They are typically located within the vicinity of children's hospitals (Portland's is a mere one block walk away from the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center). For a donation of $10.00 a day, and even then only if you can afford the fee, families (parents, grandparents, and children) can stay in a private room in a home like setting. The house isn't fancy but it is a home away from home. Staffed around the clock by a bevy of paid staff and volunteers alike, as temporary residents we had ready access to laundry facilities, the Internet, home coked meals, and most importantly, a warm bed to come back to each evening. Volunteers from every walk of life--churches, girl scout troops, high school honor societies, retiree associations, and ordinary citizens provided home cooked meals each evening. Amid the daily craziness that had become my life, eating was the last thing on my mind but the volunteers made sure each and every one of us ate. If we didn't want to stay for dinner they packed to-go boxes for us to take back to the hospital. It was impossible to say "no" to the kind volunteers ensured we had one less thing to worry about.

So as I settled into my room at the RMH, the men in my family--namely my husband, brother, and step-father-- took it as an open invitation to eat as many meals as possible at their local McDonald Restaurants. I've never been a fan of their food; call me un-American but I find it bland, unappetizing, and it is usually served (greasy and horror of all horrors) to cold.  On the rare occasion I was tempted the long snaking line for the drive through was the additional deterrent I needed. Because of this it was ironic that I actually found myself waiting in the drive through line early one morning two weeks after Sidney was born. I had been given the go-ahead for Sidney to begin wearing clothes (prior to this he was only swaddled in blankets in his isolette) so I wanted to get him his own outfits to wear so I was making a quick run to Target. I hadn't eaten yet so the golden arches called to me as I drove past. As I pulled up to the drive-through window the Ronald McDonald House collection box attached to the window caught my attention.  Just the sight of it took on a whole new meaning to me and I found myself adding a very generous donation to its coffers.

During my one month at the RMH I met a variety of people I would never have met had the circumstances surrounding Sidney's birth been different. While many of us were parents to premature babies others had children with chronic illnesses; children who were undergoing cancer treatments or awaiting organ transplants; regardless of the illness, the thought of a sick child is heartbreaking and we were all facing our children's illnesses together. All of us had children who were patients at the hospital and together we were a motley group.  In our own strange way we became our own support group. With a shared crisis between us, we bonded in a way that anyone who has not had a pre-mature or baby could ever understand.  I was rather a novelty amongst the group; I was after all "the one from Virginia" (no matter how many times I invoked my own Maine birth, I was still from away), I quickly became the best versed in NICU terminology, and despite the physical distance, I had the best support network of family and friends.

Ever the student, I took copious notes when talking with Sidney's doctors then spent hours on the Internet researching the terminology and what it really meant. I remember one snowy evening over dinner when I talked to a young dad, who himself had developmental delays. He shakily expressed his frustration with his inability to understand what the doctors were telling him about his daughter's condition. I think I was able to provide some clarity but it was in that moment that I realized I had more  in common with this young stranger than I did with my close knit group of suburban friends back in Norfolk. With Glenn back in Virginia working (and likely eating McDonald's), my mom visited several times a week, taking me out for Indian or Mexican food. The fact that my mom drove over an hour each way to see me on a regular basis took many by surprise. Several families staying at the house lived within fifteen miles of the hospital but due to their financial circumstances were unable to commute to and from the hospital on a daily basis. Weekends at the house were often chaotic since families who couldn't visit during the week would come to stay with their loved ones. I also received regular care packages from friends and family members; when my in-laws sent me an Edible Creations fruit bouquet, I had children and adults alike swarming around me since they had never seen anything like it before. As I shared the copious amount of fresh fruit with my housemates, several remarked that they had never had fresh pineapple before.

Some people stayed at RMH for a few nights while others stayed on for months.  here wasn't any limit on how long a family could reside there; if your child was in the hospital you were welcome to stay as long as needed. I spent a total of twenty-seven nights at RMH and was considered a short-timer. A few families came and went during my tenure and fortunately for everyone who checked out while I was there, they did so because their babies were going home. (I know this is not always the case). Collectively we were quick to welcome and provide support for new arrivals and we celebrated together when families packed up and went home. We also celebrated each other's milestones and shared in the agony of setbacks. When one baby girl was downgraded to critical and her tearful mother sat vigil at her bedside the rest of us felt her pain. I was giddy with excitement when I learned that Sidney had been cleared to be transferred to a Virginia hospital on the same day Glenn was due to arrive in Maine to celebrate Christmas with us. All of us RMH families celebrated this milestone and upon Glenn's arrival in Portland he received numerous congratulations from complete strangers who, although they didn't know him, knew and shared our story. It is hard to put into words but the support I received during my stay is what helped me power through that scary time in my life.

Ronald McDonald Houses are truly special places. It's been a busy five (gulp) years since my stay at the RMH but they are never far from my thoughts. I've made cash donations to the house in Portland and while in the States placed food donations in collection boxes at grocery stores.  I've designated the Ronald McDonald House of Portland as my charity of choice with Amazon Smile. Yes, I've even patronized a McDonald Restaurant or two and dropped a donation in their collection box.  I've vowed that when we return to the U.S., or to any country that has Ronald McDonald Houses, I will volunteer my time and efforts to support whichever house is local. I would be honored to be one of those volunteers who provides home cooked dinners and other treats to weary residents. I remember how much their support meant to me in my time of need and I want to play if forward to others. This is a season of giving.  If any of you have the opportunity to do the same I urge you to do it.  I can personally attest to how much your volunteer efforts would be appreciated

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