CHOP: Life at the Ronald McDonald House, Philadelphia
I had always been aware that there was something called the "Ronald McDonald House". I knew it had to do with sick kids, but that's where my knowledge ended. Recently, I had the honor and privilege of staying at the Philadelphia Ronald MacDonald House for a week. While there, I didn't just get an education on the organization. I got an education in life.
This particular Ronald McDonald House on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia was constructed in 1974 and was the first of its kind. Since then, there have been almost 300 Ronald MacDonald Houses constructed around the world. Their purpose is to give a home-away-from-home for families of critically ill children while the children are in or receiving treatment from local hospitals.
My new granddaughter, Cara, is a patient at the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) and will be there for another 30 to 45 days while she undergoes and then recuperates from major surgery. When we first heard that Yale-New Haven Hospital would be transporting Cara to CHOP, our minds were racing. The cost of a hotel room in downtown Philadelphia for a month would be staggering to my daughter and her husband. Fortunately, a hospital social worker stepped in and we secured a room at the Ronald McDonald House.
I don't know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't what I saw upon pulling up at the front gate. There was this spectacular mansion with a beautiful, peaceful garden in the front surrounded by a tall, wrought-iron fence. Just inside the front gate is a life-sized statue of Ronald MacDonald greeting you.
The McMansion (pardon the pun) was built in the early 1900s by a successful Philadelphia newspaper baron. While the original building remains intact, there have been several large additions to the house.
When I walked inside, I was immediately struck by the amazing mahogany and teak woodwork everywhere. The carvings were so ornate and intricate, I first thought that this had to have been either a church or a monastary. There were huge fireplaces, expansive staircases, and leaded crystal doors and skylights. Simply amazing.
Services and Amenities
When they tell you to "make yourself at home", they're not kidding. Our room may have looked like a typical hotel room, and we were lucky to have a private bath. Not all of the rooms do. The big difference is that there is no housecleaning. Everyone cleans their own room and washes their own towels and sheets.
Most of the rooms are on the second floor along with a small library, television room and gaming room. On the first floor, there are several playrooms for the children, a large living room with a few televisions and reading nooks, the community kitchen and dining hall and a laundry room.
On the lower level, there is an enormous teen room equipped with video games, a pool table, foosball and air hockey, a flat-screen television, small gym, and several small rooms, each equipped with an internet-connected computer and printer.
In the kitchen, there are several stoves, dishwashers and sinks and an entire bank of commercial refrigerators. One set of refrigerators remains stocked with food for everyone to enjoy, and there is a small pantry that is always stocked with donated baby food, breakfast cereal, etc. Each family has a locked cupboard to store dry goods in, and they are given two baskets with their room number on them which are meant to be filled with perishables and stored in the family refrigerators.
Each night, a different organization comes in and cooks dinner for the entire house. I still cannot believe that they are able to fill 365 nights each and every year with companies and groups willing to help. I truly was humbled. Breakfast foods are always available, and there is this wonderfully kind janitor there that always takes time in the mornings to put on the first pot of coffee and make a big batch of scrambled eggs for all to share. Those of us who are early morning risers called him the Kitchen Nazi, but we loved him nonetheless. And his eggs were the BEST!
They also have two vans available that drive the families to and from CHOP from early morning until 9:00pm.
Meeting the Families
When I first got to the Ronald MacDonald House with my daughter and Cara's twin, Chloe, I thought that the world was coming to an end. That didn't last very long.
On our second night at the house, we were seated at dinner next to a young couple and their 8-year old daughter. She was a beautiful little girl with long brunette hair and the most infectious smile. She was happy, precocious, intelligent, active and full of life. We asked the parents if they had a child at CHOP. They looked at us a little funny and told us no. They were there for their 8-year old. She is suffering from what all the doctors have told them is an inoperable brain tumor on her brain stem, and coming to CHOP was their last hope. Reality started knocking.
I then met a very young Amish couple who defied all imagination. They had a preemie in CHOP who was suffering from all of the usual preemie complications, just a little more severe than other preemies. Mind you, every day was over 95 degrees in Philly while I was there and the humidity was off the charts. If you stood outside for 5 minutes, you'd be so sweaty the only thing on your mind would be a shower. But this young couple in their long, dark clothes? They opted to walk the 10 blocks (30 minute or so walk) to and from CHOP every single day. The Mom couldn't handle it too well having just given birth, so the Father pushed her in a wheelchair.
A few nights ago I ran into them after dinner. I asked how things were going and they were both sporting ear to ear grins. They said it had been a very good day. And then the woman grabbed my hand and said, "They may take my baby off the breathing tube tomorrow!" Reality was now ringing the doorbell.
I also became very close with another grandmother who was staying there with her daughter. This grandmother's three children all gave birth within 8 weeks of each other. It was a first child for just one of her kids, and that baby happened to have been born with a very rare syndrome. He was missing both thumbs and part of his chin and other pieces of his facial and mouth structure. He could not breathe or eat on his own.
The Dad worked in New York City and came to Philly every Friday at 3:00pm and left every Monday at 9:00am. I had the opportunity while taking a bit of destress time out in the garden to talk with this amazing man. His message to me? Everything happens for a reason. He said that he may never know what the reason is, but he knew there was a purpose for what happened to his baby. He then calmly explained to me how they were going to take the baby's pinky fingers and make new thumbs out of them, just as casually as some folks talk about buying a new car. Reality was now banging on the door to be let in.
I also met another amazing child just 9 years old who pranced around the house with his tracheotomy tube and backpack with his oxygen supply. That child never, ever complained about anything and always was smiling. There was also a young mother we became close to who was there with her 5 month-old son who was suffering from cancer in both of his eyes. I met a father and grandfather who had a 5 year-old who was born with a major defect in his heart and had been undergoing surgeries since birth. And the number of very young children who were there for chemo treatments for assorted cancers was staggering.
The stories go on and on and on. And what all of these people had in common was faith, courage and the belief that everything would work out in the end.
That is when I realized that my grandbaby, Cara, may be suffering from a very, very rare congenital disease and could possibly suffer brain damage or learning disabilities and may require a lot of care for a very long time, but she isn't going to die. I had a serious wake-up call in Philly, and I feel like a very different person moving forward.
I want to thank everyone involved with the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia, from the employees to the many volunteers -- Jonathan, Miriam, Delores, Jaz and the many others whose names I do not know. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You not only gave me and my daughter (who is still there) food and shelter, you gave us hope.
Click here to learn how to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House. Help those in need. When my grandbaby comes home from CHOP, I will most definitely be volunteering.
If you can't volunteer, click here to donate to a worthy cause.