As Ruth was thinking about the past three months at the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester, Minnesota, a big smile came across her face and she said, “It’s hard to have a negative attitude when you’re surrounded by so much kindness, generosity and good…even when you’re here because you have cancer.”
Two years ago, Ruth suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her with memory loss. Doctors in her hometown did not have answers to her questions and did not specialize in brain injuries, so she journeyed to Mayo Clinic for the Pediatric Pain Rehabilitation Clinic.
After completing the clinic, Ruth returned home, but suddenly suffered from severe pain in her leg. Her doctors said it was either a bone infection…or a tumor. Because her hometown does not have a pediatric cancer unit, she had two options: University of Michigan Hospital or Mayo Clinic.
Because of her history at Mayo and because it “felt like home,” the family chose Mayo.
“When we arrived, doctors said it was most likely a tumor, but it still could have been a bone infection,” Ruth said. “We thought it would be benign and we would get it removed and go home. But it was cancerous.”
And so, two months after her clinic, Ruth was back at Mayo…for the long haul.
Ruth’s parents, Dave and Angela, slept in her hospital room for the first few nights as she underwent vigorous tests and scans. The tests and scans revealed it would be a long stay, so the Mayo Clinic social worker recommended they call the Ronald McDonald House.
The family had some familiarity with the concept of a Ronald McDonald House, but didn’t know much about it or its services. Ruth was born with a cleft lip, so the family stayed in similar place when she was born, but it was not a Ronald McDonald House.
But they were 31st on the waiting list.
“We were on the waiting list for two weeks,” said Angela. “The House Manager called us the day before Thanksgiving with a room for our family. It was such a blessing.”
The timing was anything but coincidence. Ruth was staying at Saint Marys in the midst of chemotherapy and did not have an appetite…until Thanksgiving. She woke up Thursday with a craving for turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and, of course, pumpkin pie.
And, as she was about to find out, she would have the Thanksgiving feast she longed for.
For more than 20 years, the Wilson family and friends have served Thanksgiving dinner to children and families staying at the House, families on the waiting list, and their extended families and friends as well.
“It was the biggest blessing ever,” Ruth said. “I was so worried that my family wouldn’t have a special Thanksgiving because of me.”
Her brothers were visiting from Michigan and Ohio and her uncle from Alaska and aunt from Minneapolis were in town as well. So, her dad walked to the Ronald McDonald House while the family spent time together at Saint Marys.
“I was exhausted,” Dave said. “I asked if I could have 10 meals to-go. They boxed it up quickly and sent me on my way. My family was able to have Thanksgiving dinner together in the hospital because of the Wilson family.”
“It is something we will never forget,” Angela said. “It was beautiful.”
“I was crying as I ate my pumpkin pie,” said Ruth. “It was so good and such a blessing. The meal was the reason we had a good Thanksgiving.”
The family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for the next two weeks without Ruth, who was still inpatient as she received treatment. She heard about the House every day from her brothers, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it and experiencing it.
“Living at the House is a lot different than knowing what the House is or what it does,” Dave said. “I tell anyone who will listen how thankful I am for the House and how much of a difference it makes.”
One of the reasons the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester is able to make a difference is its volunteers. More than 2,000 people volunteer at the House every year, supporting children and families in many ways.
“House volunteers are interested in me and my life,” Ruth said. “They genuinely care about me. They are here because they want to be here.”
“Many volunteers are silent givers, doing things without being asked and without asking for anything in return,” said Angela. “That’s powerful.”
“It’s heartwarming to see people’s generosity,” Dave said. “People are crawling over each other to try and give and make a difference. And it really does make a difference.
“We are pouring out our energy to help our child get better and, because of the House, we don’t have to worry about the other stuff.”
But Dave still finds the energy to give back. His piano playing can be heard in the dining area, filling the room with music for volunteers to enjoy while they work, serve and clean up and for families to take their minds off of their daily struggles.
“It is my way of saying thanks for the difference the volunteers are making for all of the families at the House,” said Dave.
It’s not only the volunteers that made Ruth and her parents feel at home. Both Dave and Angela talked about the community of families staying at the House and how they are on this journey together—joys and tears, smiles and fears.
Mayo Clinic is known for its world-renowned healthcare, while the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester is known for its hospitality. But the family found so much more during their two stays in Minnesota.
“Doctors are different at Mayo,” Ruth said. “They care about me—who I am. They are always thinking about me. It’s very personal.”
“The doctors, nurses and staff treat my daughter very well,” Dave said. “They work miracles medically, but they do so much more. They care for her.”
“I am more than a diagnosis or a treatment,” said Ruth.
And in the Ronald McDonald House the family found a home, which is currently expanding to serve more families beginning in spring 2019. Ruth described the House as a place with more opportunities and less isolation.
“It’s hard to imagine it,” Ruth said. “It’s not fun to be sick, but the House makes life so much better. If the House can help more people—if more people can experience it…”
“Nobody plans for their child to have a life-threatening sickness or an extended stay in a hospital,” Dave said. “Nobody budgets for weeks or months in a hotel. The House relieves that stress so you can focus on your child.
“More families need it.”
As far as Ruth is concerned, she finished her chemotherapy and is on the road to a full recovery. Her energy is still low and her leg is still weak, but she is headed home. She will come back every few months for a checkup, but the prognosis is promising.
“It’s a slow recovery from cancer and a slow recovery from chemo,” Angela said. “But I know she can do it.”
“And, no matter what happens, we can get through it because of what the House has done for us,” said Dave.