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A home when our family needed one: In defence of Ronald McDonald House

When Counties Manukau Health dropped plans for a Ronald McDonald House for families of Middlemore Hospital patients, many parents of very sick children were shocked. Caroline Beech explains why Ron’s House means so much to those who use it.

The scan found our daughter’s tumour on a Tuesday. A week later we were on a plane to Christchurch. In that unfamiliar city, a surgeon would drill a hole in Elliot’s head, about the size of a 20 cent piece, and take a tiny piece of her brain.

Our world had been upended.

Elliot in hospital

We’d need two trips to Christchurch, in the end. The first was for Elliot’s brain biopsy, and to meet the team who would be managing her treatment; the second was to kick off her chemotherapy. During both trips we stayed at what we affectionately called “Ron’s House”.

In case you’ve never been to one – and I kind of hope you haven’t – Ronald McDonald Houses are basically motels for the families of sick children. The one in Christchurch is just a stone’s throw from the hospital (convenient, when you could be trekking between the two places several times a day) – and has indoor and outdoor playgrounds, a comfortable lounge, and a communal kitchen and dining room.

At a time when we were going through so much uncertainty, everything was just there. We didn’t need to think about where we were going to be staying, or where the next meal was coming from, or anything other than supporting each other. Ronald McDonald House was genuinely invaluable, to the point where it’s hard to imagine how we could have coped without them.

Ronald McDonald House at Starship

We had to go to Christchurch because there’s no pediatric oncology service in Wellington. There are only two in the whole country (the other one being Starship Hospital) – so if you live anywhere other than Christchurch or Auckland, and your child has cancer, you’re going to need to get familiar with Ron’s House. The same goes for any number of other conditions that can’t be treated at regional hospitals – and for some families, treatment means having to stay there indefinitely.

I’ve described it as being like a motel, but Ron’s House is more than that. At a motel, you can’t take for granted the heightened awareness of hygiene that’s required when many of your guests are immune compromised. You won’t have meals cooked for you most nights by local businesses and community groups. Motels don’t provide workshops and activities for patients and their siblings, and don’t have shelves stocked with donated food. And a motel probably wouldn’t be so forgiving about unexpected arrivals and departures, and guests who don’t know how long they’ll be staying, or who might not know they’re leaving until the day it happens. It also wouldn’t have the sense of community you can only get from other people who fundamentally understand the things you’re going through, because they’re going through them too.

Elliot with her father Jarrod at Christchurch Hospital

The day we arrived, it turned out that they weren’t expecting us – they hadn’t received our booking, for some reason. They shuffled things around and made it work anyway. They were having their mid-winter Christmas that night, including a full Christmas dinner and a visit from Santa, complete with presents for all the children. Despite the fact that we’d literally turned up on their doorstep 45 minutes beforehand – and they didn’t even know we were coming – Santa produced named gifts for Elliot and for Lydia, our older daughter, from his sack. Elliot was too young to appreciate it, but for Lydia it was huge. At that stage she was almost four, and the whole situation was as hard on her as on any of us. The people at Ronald McDonald House went the extra mile to make sure she was included.

Caroline and Elliot outside Ronald McDonald House

Yes, they’re sponsored by McDonald’s (along with, as it happens a whole host of other businesses and individuals) – and you’d be naive to think that the corporate sponsors of any charity are providing that sponsorship purely out of the goodness of their hearts. But aside from the name, the connection is fairly low-key – it’s not as if they’re serving Big Macs and Happy Meals there. To someone (like myself) unfamiliar with the eponymous clown, the relationship is almost obscure. And maybe in an ideal world corporate sponsorship wouldn’t be needed for this sort of service… but as the mother of a child with a brain tumour, I feel uniquely qualified to tell you that this isn’t an ideal world.

We’re lucky that for now Elliot’s able to be treated as an outpatient in Wellington – but if she eventually requires more intensive treatment, we’ll be off to Christchurch again – where we know that the team at Ron’s House will welcome us with open arms. It won’t be home, exactly – but it’ll mean we can all be together – and no matter what happens next, that’s the most important thing of all.

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