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‘‘Blessed naturally by having two healthy singleton baby boys, now 10 and 16, we had no thoughts, no history, and no notion that there could be any complications with our next potential child,’’ writes Kathryn Vernal from Dunedin.
‘‘At Christchurch Women's Hospital on May 28, 2014, after 36 weeks gestation, in a blur of doctors, nurses, machines, and an emergency operating theatre, my husband and I were gifted with two more beautiful children and two more siblings for Aydin, then 3 and Alex, then 6.
Miss Leah Margaret Avis, who after being in such a rush to get out, was resuscitated for 15 minutes, a healthy baby girl weighing 6lb 14oz.
And Master Jack Stephen Stuart, so quiet and alert taking in everything, a tiny 4lb 6oz, who looked like a fragile porcelain doll wrapped in glad wrap.
Jack was born with multiple medical complexities including the severe form of Spina Bifida, Myelomeningocele, where part of his spinal column and spinal cord were exposed, and Hydrocephalus, which meant when he was born he had a build up of cerebral spinal fluid in his head which was causing intense swelling and potential brain damage.
Once stable enough, Jack and my husband Stu were airlifted to Starship Auckland where Jack underwent his first two major surgeries within a short few days of each other.
To be in a new city with no family, no support, not knowing anyone, can be very unnerving. Adding your tiny precious brand new baby being covered in wires and hooked up to many machines is something that no parent should ever have to face. Stu felt helpless, devastated, unnerved, and tired... so very very tired.
An amazing lady called Sarah came in to see Stu after Jack was stable from surgery and took him to the Ronald McDonald House, telling him all they could offer him during this time.
There he was able to get something to eat, have a shower, wash and dry his clothes, rest, and have a conversation with a social worker who explained what would happen, and offered support such as counselling, food vouchers, and the blessing that has come to be our second home, The Ronald McDonald House Auckland and also the Christchurch House.
In Jack’s short six years we have attended hundreds of clinics, seen thousands of medical professionals, and undergone 16 different surgeries in Dunedin, Christchurch, and Auckland. These surgeries include Spinal, Neurological, having a kidney removed, Nephrology, Orthopaedic, and Jack has beat the odds every time.
Through this journey - where we have almost lost Jack numerous times, spent hours by his bed, stroking his forehead, holding his hand and reassuring him, watching monitor levels go up and down, being scared or awoken to different alarms beeping - there is one thing that has remained a constant, a saving grace, a sanctuary. That for us is the RMHC New Zealand and their houses.
For us, and so many families throughout New Zealand and abroad, the Ronald McDonald Houses are a beacon of light through the haze of hospital life. It's a place where the staff are always there, arms out-stretched for a loving hug for worn out, stressed, upset, or anxious parents. It’s a hot, healthy meal when you realise you haven't eaten all day. It’s a soft, comfy bed that you can collapse onto when your body's aching from sitting in a chair for hours next to your sick child. It’s a pillow to scream or cry into while your child's recovering in ICU, HDU, or on a ward. It’s a shower with toiletries you probably forgot to pack. A caring chat. A respite.
For us, on top of all those things, the houses are a safe place where Jack can rest and recover whilst being close to the hospital, chilling out, watching his favourite shows The Chase and Tipping Point on repeat after having a much deserved bowl of chocolate ice cream.
Without the Ronald McDonald Houses and everything they do, our journey and others alike, would be one of more undue stress, anxiety, and more of a challenge than anyone should have to face during a time with so many variables, more questions than answers, and a time that no parent or child should have to go through.
The Ronald McDonald Houses rely on the grace of New Zealand to help them help families, by donating during its campaigns, through the McDonalds Restaurants, and during events. This allows them to keep its doors open for anyone who needs them.
Every year Jack and I collect for the charity; this is our small way to give back as we cannot do so financially ourselves. If everyone can help, even in a small way, altogether it makes a big change and a huge difference to many Kiwi families.’’
If you would like to support families like the Vernal’s and other Otago and Southland families who stay in a Ronald McDonald House every year, head to the RMHC New Zealand website www.rmhc.org.nz