Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, July 14, 2002


From left, Kona residents Ronald Lau, son Jacob and mom Beth Blatt stay at the Ronald McDonald house while they visit doctors in Honolulu.

The house that love built

By Nancy Arcayna

Aimee Ng weighed 1 pound, 8 ounces at birth -- the size of a Beanie Baby. At 24 weeks of gestation, "that's the youngest they can save them so far, so if she was born a few days earlier, she may not have survived," said Brandon Ng, Aimee's dad.

"No more than a handful," added Susie Leong, Aimee's mom, who was rushed via a medical helicopter from the Big Island to Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children, where Aimee had to remain under medical care for seven months. The Ronald McDonald House provided the Ngs with peace of mind and comfort. "It's so close to the hospital," said Leong. "They even take us to the store."

It was easier than staying with family, which can get complicated, Ng said. "They don't have room, and you need to depend on them for rides."

Leong and Ng are staying at the Ronald McDonald House again because Aimee contracted pneumonia and still needs surgery that would open up her airways. Not to worry, though: Today, 15-month-old Aimee is now overweight and on a diet. And her health problems should subside by the time she is 3.

Many families have gained the same peace of mind as Aimee's parents. The Ronald McDonald House on Judd Hillside Road, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, is credited with "more than 7,000 served," having provided a home away from home for families suffering medical crises across Hawaii and around the Pacific Rim, said public relations manager Gene Davis.

A second facility on Dole Street provides a dormlike setting for parents with in-patient children. It offers an alternative to endless commuting, sleeping on chairs in waiting rooms or having to pay for expensive hotel rooms.

Brandon Ng and Susie Leong proudly show a photo of their daughter, Aimee, who was born at 24 weeks and required an extended stay at Kapiolani Medical Center. Their longest stay at Ronald McDonald House was 7 months. They're here again from the Big Island while Aimee is undergoing surgery.

THE FIRST Ronald McDonald House was established in 1973. Philadelphia Eagles football player Fred Hill's daughter had leukemia, and after spending countless hours at her bedside, pacing the hallways and napping on chairs in a facility far from home, he decided to do something to ease the burden and discomfort for other families in similar situations. His teammates banded together with local McDonald's restaurants to form the first Ronald McDonald House. More than 200 houses have since then been established worldwide.

The newest venture on Oahu is the "Ronald McDonald Family Room" being constructed at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children and scheduled to open in the fall. "The really neat thing about the family room is that Oahu residents can use it. If they live on the Waianae Coast and have an ill child at the hospital, they will not go home to shower or eat. They live at the hospital because they can only leave their child's bedside for short periods," said Jerri Chong, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Kapiolani agreed to provide space after seeing the need firsthand. "They see the family members sleeping in their cars or in the hallways," she said. The pediatric and neonatal intensive care units at the hospital do not have individual rooms. A chair at the child's bedside may be a parent's only refuge. The new room will provide a haven equipped with a place to rest, check e-mail or conduct medical research, or just get some privacy.

"Also, the parents and family members will be only steps away from their hospitalized children," Chong said. "A remarkable number of families will be able to be served."

The room also provides a space where family members can gather, because children are not allowed on the wards. "You may have one ill child, but your other children don't disappear. In fact, their attention needs increase," she said.

SERVICES NEEDED are increasing at a rate of 10 percent per year. Outrigger Hotels provides rooms for families to catch the overflow, said Chong. "Expanding our services and creating the capacity to make a difference for more children and families is a very exciting way to celebrate our 15th-anniversary year."

The only criterion for staying at the house is that a child be diagnosed with a critical or life-threatening illness, like cancer, premature birth, birth defects or organ transplants.

Families are asked to donate $20 a night to cover the cost of services, including lodging and transportation. "Frankly, not all of the families are able to make contributions, especially if they are staying for a long period of time. Many times, the family is separated. Mom comes here and Dad stays back to continue working so they can meet continuing expenses," said Chong.

The families find comfort in being around others who understand what they are going through, said house manager Kristi Koga. "And if only one parent is here, they really need that support."

Strong bonding has occurred at the Dole Street facility. Most of the residents are women experiencing a high-risk pregnancy or those with premature infants. "They all have the same questions and concerns. The relationships and friendships (made at the house) are strong and lasting."

Eighty percent of the patients who stay at the house are under 10. About half suffer from birth-related conditions. The average stay is around two weeks. However, when patients are being treated for cancer or other life-threatening conditions, stays may last up to a year. While many families are able to celebrate recoveries, others can only cherish their remaining time together, said Chong.

Advanced technology now allows many children to spend most of the time at the house and just go to the hospital for treatment. A playroom is equipped with a television and VCR, PlayStation, toys and books. Craft and other activities are also available. And, efforts are made to accommodate individuals. Koga said movies were rented for recent guests -- three teenagers, one chemotherapy patient and two transplant patients -- who became close friends during their stay.

"My work at the Ronald McDonald House really makes me have a greater appreciation for my own personal circumstances," said Chong. "I've learned not to take things for granted."

The Ronald McDonald House, on Judd Hillside Road, is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

Volunteers play vital role in serving the community

Want to lend a hand?

Volunteers are instrumental when it comes to running the Ronald McDonald house. The facility at Judd Hillside Road has a full kitchen, including staples of rice, flour and sugar. Volunteer groups visit to prepare dinner for the families. "Sometimes it's even a family that wants to give back to the community," said public relations manager Gene Davis.

Gail Estrella has been volunteering at the house for about a year. "I've done it all, from weeding the garden to baking with the kids," she said.

She got the idea of volunteering after reading an article in Oprah magazine. "The children are so inspirational," she said. "Although one can see what they are going through physically, at times it's hard to imagine that they are so sick. They act like normal kids who just want to play.

"It's a good lesson for us all. I know so many adults who always whine and complain. The children teach me so much and make me look at what I've got in life, not what I don't have," said Estrella.

One way to help is through donations. Items needed: rice, cooking oil, fruits and vegetables, household cleaners, AA batteries, laundry detergent and paper goods. Monetary donations and unwanted vehicles are also accepted.

Time is another option. Volunteers are needed to assist with clerical duties, family outings and cooking. Once the Kapiolani Hospital family room is complete, trained volunteers will be needed on site daily. Call 973-5683 for more information.

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