Recently my family and I were made acutely aware of the universal fact that you never know when you are one flying fox incident away from a hospital stay with your child. We are lucky to live so close to the hospital, but when Gemma broke her arm recently, we still had to rely on Alec’s parents and close friends to ensure that the twins were fed and that I had what I needed to stay overnight. Gemma was scared and in severe pain. She needed me by her side every moment in those first hours, but that did not mean the rest of life went on pause. It never does. Children need their families close when they are hurting. We gather by their bedside and supplement the medical treatment with emotional balms. It is the modern day equivelent of circling the wagons.
But imagine you were separated from your tribe when your family faced the most frightening crises yet? What if you found yourself walking the fine line of having it all and losing everything while you are 300 kilometres away from your support system with just hope and the clothes on your back in a big expensive city of strangers?
That is just what happened to Rebecca and David from Wangaratta in rural Victoria. At Rebecca’s 23 week scan, everything was normal. The identical twin girls inside her were growing on schedule and all things looked just fine. A week later she was not feeling all that great. The local hospital decided to keep her overnight just for observation and she sent David home. Everything changed in a matter of hours. What had started with mild symptoms rapidly descended into life threatening pre-eclampsia. Faced with a medical crisis beyond the scope of the rural hospital’s facilities, Rebecca was urgently transported to a (at that point undecided) Melbourne hospital by ambulance. Pleading for the babies to be kept inside despite the ramifications for her own well being, she gave birth to Scarlett and Isabella, via emergency c-section at 24 weeks and 6 days gestation. They weighed 600 grams and 697 grams. This is the very definition of micro preemie. After driving nearly four hours chasing his wife’s ambulance to Melbourne and suddenly becoming a father to two teeny tiny feisty daughters three and a half months before they were even expected to arrive, a nurse turned to David and asked a question he had yet to consider: “Where are you going to stay?”
Faced with months of hospitalisation for their twins (they were told that it could be a 42 weeks long stay for twins born at that gestational age), Rebecca and David had few options after Rebecca was well enough to be released from the hospital, herself. There is barely just enough room for standing next to each incubator in the NICU and with all the lights and activity, it is not a place for rest even if you could stretch out. The nurse there called the Ronald McDonald House Charities and luck prevailed again for this family with a room available. This has been their home base now for the past 8 weeks as their daughters have doubled their birth weights, had their first cries and even graduated to the second tiniest diaper size. David has had to return to work so he drives the 600 kilometres home and back each week knowing Rebecca has a safe place to live that is so close to their daughters.
The Ronald McDonald House at Monash is now twenty years old. With fifteen units, it has been home to more than 5,700 families (the longest residents were there just three weeks short of three YEARS!) with seriously ill children who were either in hospital for extended stays or discharched yet still in need of care and too weak to return home to more rural areas without the proper medical facilities. They provide basic food staples for families so that running out of milk is never a problem. And speaking of milk…of another kind, I was so impressed with their massive fridge/freezer exclusively for the storage of breast milk. So many families in the Ronald McDonald House are there because their babies came way too early. RMH makes sure those hospitalised babies get not only mother’s love and touch, but her milk as well.
It isn’t just the Ronald McDonald House that helps parents while their children are in the hospital. Ronald McDonald House Charities run eight Ronald McDonald Family Rooms around the country (with plans for a further seventeen) where family members can get away from the stark hospital environment and do laundry, relax, shower, nap or just eat and sit, yet still be just down the hall from their children. RMHC also has family retreats for vacations when they are desperately needed, runs The Learning Program for sick kids to stay on track with school work, funds scholarships and awards and even facilitates cord blood banking. RMHC has a huge reach to help families and children, both rural and urban, all around Australia.
The houses and family rooms are run with the help of volunteers. These people are there for the families to not only help with laundry and other day to day chores, but they are the shoulders to cry on and the arms that hold these families up. They are the ears that listen at the end of very long days and wells of personal experience for raw and emotionally spent families to draw advice and comfort from. I got to meet the longest serving volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, Charlie Mizzi, who has been working with his wife for the facility the entire twenty years, becoming involved after managing a McDonald’s restaurant. He told me that when he and his wife went overseas, their children would step in to fill their volunteer spots. In those twenty years he said “We never let Ronald McDonald down.”
It is all possible by donations and the annual fundraiser, McHappy Day. That is TOMORROW: Saturday the 9th of November. All around Australia, McDonald’s restaurants will be hosting celebrities, entertainers and activities to celebrate the community and put smiles on the faces of sick kids. You might even see me at a Melbourne location taking photos! On McHappy Day, $2 from every Big Mac sold goes to RMHC or you can buy a Helping Hand in store to donate $1. You don’t even have to go in a restaurant to help, you can donate online. When McHappy Day launched in 1991, $375,000 was raised in Australia. This year the target is $3.4 million (trying to beat last year’s $3.2 million) for the upkeep and running of the fourteen current Ronald McDonald Houses and to start building five more, building and maintaining the Family Rooms, expanding The Learning Program and much more. There are many MANY more ways to get involved, but this Saturday is the easiest and biggest with McHappy Day on in every McDonald’s restaurant in Australia.
Even though I had to sleep on a vinyl chair that smelled like old socks when Gemma was in the hospital, I feel grateful knowing home was close enough for Alec to bring me dinner fresh from our kitchen and that it was only one night. I feel even better now knowing that families have options beyond living in an old chair and surviving off vending machine snacks when they desperately need to be rested and healthy for their child. Ronald McDonald House brings the comforts and convenience of home to families who need it most so they can worry about the only thing that really matters at that moment…being together.