Miracle-Child Luis

Luis (Photography by Fagan Studios)

First steps. First words. First birthday. First day of school. Kids have many firsts. Very few have first…tumor.

“Doctors said I wouldn’t walk again…” said Luis. “…if I lived.”

His father, Hector, emigrated from Puerto Rico and lived in Chicago. His mother, Judy, emigrated from Puerto Rico and lived in the Bronx. Both returned to Puerto Rico in their late teens, found each another, and started a life together.

Luis was born in Puerto Rico in 1983.

Early in his life, he struggled with balance and walking. The issues concerned his mom, so he visited the hospital in Puerto Rico. Doctors diagnosed Luis with a neurological issue—his brain was not communicating with his legs. Additional inspection revealed a tumor on his neck. Doctors made an incision and did a biopsy on his tumor. Because Puerto Rico wasn’t advanced in the medical field, doctors didn’t have the equipment or expertise for treating his condition.

“Doctors said I needed help,” Luis said. “But they couldn’t help me.”

The result was an unexplainable, unimaginable story.

“My mom believes a miracle happened in the hospital in Puerto Rico,” said Luis.

Luis (Photography by Fagan Studios)

As Luis and his mom were sitting in his hospital room—discouraged and defeated—a woman walked in and said: “If you want to survive…visit Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.”

As mysteriously as she came…she was gone.

His mom researched Mayo Clinic and found one in Florida and one in Texas, but she had faith and believed it was a sign. Six months later—March 1990—Luis and his family were in Minnesota. The six-year-old was embarking on a lifelong journey.

Mayo Clinic diagnosed Luis with Neurofibromatosis—a genetic disorder affecting the nervous system. There are two types: NF1 and NF2. NF1 is the more common type and characterized by discolored skin, growths, enlargement and deformation of bones, and curvature of the spine. Tumors may also develop on the brain, cranial nerves, or spinal cord.

The question was not are there tumors…the question was how many tumors are there.

“I have tumors all over my body,” Luis said. “I have tumors in my arms, in my chest, behind my eyes, and more. Tumors attacked my neck and spine.”

Luis (Photography by Fagan Studios)

The tumor on his neck was large—it covered C1, C2, and C3 cervical vertebrae. It fused to the bone—it was holding his neck together. Doctors removed the tumor in a high-stakes surgery. Surgery was as successful as possible, but Luis needed a neck fusion and a full body halo for the next year and an additional six months in a wheelchair. Best scenario: paralyzed for life. Worst scenario: less than one year of life.

That was 30 years and 100,000,000 steps ago.

“I have had 10 total surgeries,” said Luis. “I have had tumors removed from my neck and trachea and I may need one removed from my eye. But I keep on living; keep on walking.

“I can. I will. I must.”

Doctors also said Luis would never play sports. He played basketball, football, and was a longtime boxer.

“Everything I was told I couldn’t do…I did,” Luis said.

The Ronald McDonald House of Rochester was founded as Northland Children’s Services in 1980. After operating for 10 years as Northland House, it was invited to become a licensed Ronald McDonald House in 1990…when Luis sand his family arrived in Rochester.

When Hector learned his son needed medical care in the United States, he informed his employer—a famous lawyer in Puerto Rico—he would be leaving. He connected Hector with government officials and communicated with Mayo Clinic and the House. Plans for Luis happened fast…and saved his life.

“The House was our home for a long time,” Luis said. “It’s still our home.”

Luis (Photography by Fagan Studios)

Following the first surgery, his dad returned home. After a couple months, he was back in Minnesota. Luis and his parents, sister, aunt and uncle, cousins, grandparents, and more, made Rochester their permanent home.

“Everything worked out the best for everybody,” said Luis.

Luis remembers his time in the House fondly, reminiscing about his best friend from Ukraine and his mom connecting with other moms. Visiting the recently completed expansion—which made the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester one of the largest Ronald McDonald Houses in the world—was emotional for Luis.

“The new House…” Luis said. “…it shows families—everything will be OK.”

Luis visited the House for the first time in decades when Subaru of Rochester made a donation during its Share the Love event in June 2019. Luis was a Product Specialist for Subaru of Rochester for four years and is now Special Finance Manager for Nissan of Rochester, part of the Penz Automotive Group.

“The opportunity; the door Todd opened…” said Luis. “He didn’t have to hire me; didn’t have to give me a chance. But he did. And I am forever thankful.”

Luis is making the most of his opportunities.

“I want to make a difference,” said Luis. “I want to be involved with the community. I want to help kids. I want to motivate others.”

Luis (Photography by Fagan Studios)

Subaru of Rochester selected the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester as its charity of choice for the Subaru of America Share the Love event in 2019-20, donating $250 for every new vehicle purchased and an additional $50 for the House…resulting in a $32,230.36 donation!

The commitment to the children and families at the House was simply another reason Luis is proud of his work.

“Tell children and families: everything will be OK,” Luis said. “And it will be OK because of people like Todd and companies like Subaru.”

There are more surgeries in his future, but Luis is staying optimistic.

Only one doctor from his original surgery is still practicing. When he sees Luis in the hall, he asks, “How is my miracle child?”

“My mom calls him our angel,” said Luis.

“My mom always said I should share my story,” Luis said. “But it’s not only my story. My mom, my dad, my family, the Ronald McDonald House—it’s our story.”

And what a story it is!

Luis (Photography by Fagan Studios)

Curious Case of Camilla

Camilla (Photography by Crystal Hedberg Photography)

Spacing out. Drooling. Odd facial movements. It wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t super concerning. Until it was.

“We started noticing seizures—very focal seizures,” said Lindsey, Camilla’s mom. “The first thing I did was call Mayo Clinic—it is the best hospital in the world.”

Camilla’s grandfather suffered from a brain tumor and Mayo Clinic treated him, so Lindsey was familiar with the process. Unfortunately, her experience was necessary.

Mayo Clinic diagnosed Camilla with a brain tumor. It was originally considered benign, but there were significant complications. The doctors ordered a 48-hour electroencephalogram (EEG) to detect abnormalities in Camilla’s brain waves and electrical activity in her brain. The results were staggering.

“The EEG revealed eight seizures—almost all occurring in her sleep,” Lindsey said. “We didn’t even know it was happening at night.”

One significant issue was both of Camilla’s arms were moving during seizures, indicating that the tumor was likely near the motor skills area of her brain. Because of the location of the tumor, doctors were concerned about conducting a rather risky surgery. They told Kody and Lindsey that Camilla “may never walk again or it may be a long time before she does” and her “left side—face and body—may be numb or paralyzed.”

“That’s my baby,” said Lindsey. “I said: ‘I want it out of her.’ The sooner, the better.”

Surgery was successful, but doctors were still worried about her motor skills. The next morning…Camilla miraculously walked and her left side was functioning normally.

It wasn’t easy, but it was done. Until it wasn’t.

Lindsey, Delilah, Estelle, Kody, Camilla (Photography by Crystal Hedberg Photography)

Two weeks later, pathology revealed Camilla’s tumor was malignant and Grade III—it was cancerous, it spreads and it tends to come back. Her prognosis was three years.

“Our world was turned upside down,” Lindsey said.

Camilla needed proton beam radiation—33 treatments over seven weeks. Rochester is not particularly close to home and Kody and Lindsey have two other daughters.

“There were so many questions,” said Lindsey. “How do we do this? Where do we stay? How do we continue working through this? The news of cancer was so overwhelming, and the logistics made it more overwhelming.”

That is when a Mayo Clinic social worker told them about the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester. Kody and Lindsey didn’t know much about the Ronald McDonald House, but their stay would drastically impact Camilla’s recovery.

“When we moved into the Ronald McDonald House, everything changed for Camilla,” Lindsey said. “Instead of focusing on her therapy and all of her pain and fears, she focused on the Ronald McDonald House.”

Camilla made friends with kids of all ages; Lindsey felt supported by other moms. The family enjoyed activities and dinners. It became home.

“My other daughters also loved the House and wished they could join Camilla more often,” said Lindsey.

Camilla, Estelle, Delilah (Photography by Crystal Hedberg Photography)

Lindsey and Camilla moved in as the House finished its expansion. The family especially enjoyed the indoor activity room and outdoor plaza—for expending energy.

“I didn’t know what to expect and I was blown away,” Lindsey said.

Lindsey said the House eased their burdens on a very painful journey. Volunteers help relieve stress by doing anything and everything for children and families, including cleaning areas multiple times each day. Lindsey said the House is “spotless” and a “very safe place for kids undergoing cancer treatment.”

“Volunteers are all so loving, kind, and compassionate,” said Lindsey. “They all had a smile on their face and made us feel welcome.

“I hope I can volunteer at the House one day.”

Camilla’s case is not closed—she will come back every three months for a MRI. However, following surgery and proton beam radiation…it was all clear. There is no tumor. But the prognosis doesn’t change: because it is Grade III, chances are high it will come back.

Through it all, Kody and Lindsey have been impressed with Camilla’s attitude strength and resiliency. And it all started at the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester.

“When Camilla finished her treatment and rang the bell, she didn’t want to leave the House,” Lindsey said. “For her birthday, she wants to have a party at the House. She will never forget the friends she made, and continues to pray for them.

“The House is so special.”

Camilla (Photography by Crystal Hedberg Photography)

In Her Words: 40 Years

In the background, hanging on the wall, is a Jane Belau work of art; a heart with a bouquet of flowers. All proceeds from the sale supported the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester. It hangs in Cynthia’s living room.

Cynthia Nelson is an Emeritus Trustee and reflected on her time at the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester, Minnesota, and its 40 years serving children and families…in her own words!

I was working at Mayo Clinic in the early 1980s and I was in the personnel department, as was Dave Senjem, who is now in the Minnesota Senate. He was on the Board for Northland Children’s Services. I wanted to get involved in the community, but I was less interested in joining a service club to raise money for charity; I wanted to work with charities directly. Dave completed his term and nominated me for the Board.

Once I was in…the House almost became my second home.

People ask, “How can you spend your time around sick children?” In my eyes…the children at the House have so much joy. They are sick, but they are celebrating life every day. And their smiles light up the room. I learned many life lessons from observing and interacting with the children and families at the House.

The House has gone through many changes, but its purpose and goals have remained constant. Mayo Clinic says: needs of the patient come first. The House says: needs of the children come first. The House surrounds the kids with as much normalcy, consistency, and support as it can. It is so important for the kids and their families.

When I was nominated…I was shocked. I had no idea. Phil Henoch said: “An Emeritus Trustee is someone who has a long history of involvement and a passion for the House.” Involvement and passion were key. An Emeritus Trustee does not always have a formal role, but we are always available for the House. Always.

I was on the Love Tremendously Hope Exceedingly capital campaign leadership team. People invested extraordinary effort, often behind the scenes, for the larger House to become a reality.

The grand opening and ribbon cutting was a very special moment; we all witnessed the joy on the faces of children and families. It was all so beautiful and supportive for our guests.

I cannot believe it has been 40 years…until I look in the mirror! I drive down the street and it is all so amazing. The House has come a long way from shared bathrooms and board meetings in the living room.

But the core motivation is the same: how can we help children and families experiencing extreme worry and upheaval in their life?

I love watching the children enjoy House activities. Every child who walks through the doors of the House is special.

It has been a very great honor to be able to help the House in any way I can. In many life situations, people say, “I gave more than I received.” I think it is the other way around at the House.

I receive far more than I give.

Will you help us celebrate 40 years with a gift of $40?
https://www.classy.org/campaign/celebrating-40-years/c288676
Thank you for supporting Ronald McDonald House children and families!

Remi’s Life-Saving Scan

Remi (Photography by Laci Eberle Photography)

Remi is a thriving one-year-old who Katelyn and Casey cannot imagine life without and, if not for an ultrasound, she may not be here.

Katelyn, an OB/GYN ultrasonographer for Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, sat silent in stunned disbelief as she stared at the screen during her 20-week ultrasound.

“I wanted to check on her; I wanted to see her,” said Katelyn, Remi’s mom.

“But as I looked at her heart…my heart sunk.”

Something was wrong. Katelyn’s friend and colleague confirmed her greatest fear: her baby had a heart abnormality.

“You never expect anything to be wrong with your baby…” said Katelyn.

Remi was diagnosed with Dextro-Transposition of the great arteries. DTGA is a congenital heart defect in which the main arteries—pulmonary and aorta—exit the heart parallel as opposed to crossing. It is a rare condition—affecting one in every 3,413 babies—and it is not always immediately detected.

Which makes the discovery even more remarkable.

“If the heart defect on the ultrasound was not detected and Remi was born in Eau Claire, she would have been flown to Rochester and she may not have survived,” said Katelyn. “Her condition post-delivery was very bad.”

Katelyn, Remi, Reese, Casey (Photography by Laci Eberle Photography)

Katelyn relocated to Rochester when she was 37 weeks pregnant because the pediatric cardiac team was not comfortable with her being two hours away…in case Katelyn went into labor. And Remi would need immediate care.

When Katelyn arrived in Rochester, she was not familiar with the Ronald McDonald House. After Remi was diagnosed, Katelyn was referred to the House by a Mayo Clinic social worker. The House answered two key questions: how would Katelyn and Casey afford lodging and how would they maintain normalcy for their four-year-old daughter Reese?

“Reese understood she was going to be a big sister, but she didn’t understand what was happening,” said Katelyn. “My husband is a teacher and wasn’t able to take time off before Remi was born. So, I started maternity leave early and Casey stayed home with Reese.

“And every weekend they would come to Rochester and we would stay at the Ronald McDonald House…as a family.”

But the House was in the final stages of its expansion and rooms; Katelyn was placed on the waiting list. Her OB/GYN doctor in Eau Claire, whom she works with, rallied others to contribute money for Katelyn’s hotel stay until a room opened up at the House. And they made a generous donation to the House in Remi’s name.

“It was such a blessing,” Katelyn said. “And when I was induced in Rochester, Dr. Yun from Eau Claire visited me and encouraged me. It was really sweet.”

Remi June was born on May 20. She was immediately transported via ambulance from Methodist to Saint Marys—Remi needed a balloon septostomy to stabilize her heart for a few days until she was strong enough to undergo surgery. Katelyn remained at Methodist for her own recovery while Remi recovered in the NICU at Saint Marys.

Doctors conducted a major open-heart surgery—arterial switch operation—in May 2019.

Remi (Photography by Laci Eberle Photography)

“The doctor is world-renowned,” said Katelyn. “Our beautiful daughter grew stronger and stronger by the day. She simply needed time to recover.

“And we were with her because of the Ronald McDonald House.”

When Katelyn arrived in Rochester, the House was in the midst of its expansion to add more guest rooms and community spaces. Her family was staying at the House for the grand opening in May and was the first family to stay in one of the new guest rooms—two moments she says they will never forget.

“I don’t feel like we deserved to be at the House,” Katelyn said. “It’s very humbling. It was an incredible support system, not only monetarily, but in every way.

“We did not have to worry about anything—we were able to focus on our child.”

One reason they were able to focus on Remi was because of the House volunteers.

“All of the volunteers were incredible,” said Katelyn. “They always had a smile on their face and asked if we needed any help. They were there for us during the hardest and most difficult time of our life.

“Again…it’s very humbling.”

Remi has fully recovered and is living a normal life—there is nothing anatomically wrong. She can do anything any other child can do—no restrictions. She will visit a cardiologist yearly for the rest of her life, but all reports are positive thus far.

While Remi never stayed at the House, it became much more than a place to stay for her parents and sister.

“The Ronald McDonald House is the best place in the entire world,” Katelyn said. “I can’t explain it in words…it means so much to our family. It’s a significant part of our lives.”

“It’s a place we will never forget and a place we will forever support.”

Katelyn, Remi, Reese, Casey (Photography by Laci Eberle Photography)

Nolan’s 38 Weeks

Nolan (Photography by Fagan Studios)

Nolan is very energetic. He is happy, go-lucky. He is a jokester.

But suddenly…Nolan wasn’t being himself. He was quiet. He was moody. He had night sweats. He had a headache. He was constipated. He was vomiting.

Was it a sinus infection? Was it strep throat? Mono? Lyme disease?

Josh and Tina’s parent instinct said it was something serious.

“It was the start of a long journey,” said Josh, Nolan’s dad.

After months of dealing with common illness and taking common medication, Nolan and his parents, grandparents, and siblings, prepared for Halloween night—he was so excited for trick-or-treating. But a couple hours into the holiday event, Nolan said he didn’t feel well. He started vomiting.

“We packed, loaded the car, and were in Minneapolis within a couple hours,” Josh said.

Nolan (Photography by Fagan Studios)

The family visited Children’s Minnesota for further evaluation and testing. The scans revealed it was a sinus issue…but it was a tumor in his sinus. A biopsy confirmed the findings.

“It was a lot,” said Josh. “It was a lot for an eight-year-old and it was a lot for us.”

Doctors recommended an aggressive treatment plan: chemotherapy for 38 weeks—nearly 10 months. He would receive normal chemo every week and endure a one-month stretch at Mayo Clinic in Rochester for proton beam radiation therapy.

“Chemo was hard on him,” Josh said. “It was hard to watch.”

Josh described their time at Mayo as an “awesome miracle.”

Nolan (Photography by Fagan Studios)

“You hear about Rochester and Mayo, but you never think you or your family will need it,” said Josh. “It’s such a blessing.”

And for the duration of their time in Rochester, Nolan and his parents have stayed at the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester. Josh and Tina assumed it would be weeks before they received a room in the House—they heard there was always a waiting list. But when they arrived and talked to a Mayo social worker, she said: “You will definitely have a room.”

Josh and Tina did not know the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester expanded.

The family was in less than 24 hours later.

“The House is incredible,” Josh said. “There is so much support for Nolan and our family. We are so lucky—it would have been such a challenge without it.”

The expanded Ronald McDonald House of Rochester has 70 guest rooms and many new community spaces and underground parking for families. It is the largest House in the state of Minnesota, 11th largest in the country and 17th largest in the world.

“I see the plaques; I take notice,” said Josh. “People and businesses donated rooms and supported my son and my family…

“I can’t describe it.”

Nolan (Photography by Fagan Studios)

The House was a place for the entire family. Nolan and his parents were in Rochester while his older siblings were hours away with his grandparents. But on weekends…the House was their home as well.

“The House is such an inviting atmosphere,” Josh said. “It is comfortable. We discussed renting an apartment or a house, but the House is the best environment for Nolan.

“It has definitely made a difference.”

Volunteers are a primary reason the House is a warm place. The House received 19,086 volunteer hours from 1,620 volunteers in 2019.

“House volunteers are amazing people,” said Josh. “They make you feel safe and give you peace. The smiles, care, connections—it all means so much.”

As his dad said…Nolan is on a long journey. The tumor is in a dangerous location. There is a 70 percent chance chemotherapy will clear it…but there is a 30-50 percent chance it will return within two years. And if it comes back…it will be even more dangerous.

“It’s all statistics,” Josh said.

For now, Nolan is going on with life and keeping the faith.

“Because the journey is not over,” said Josh.

Nolan (Photography by Fagan Studios)

Alexander joins House operations team

ROCHESTER, MINN.—The Ronald McDonald House of Rochester, Minnesota, is pleased to announce that Matt Alexander has joined the staff as Facility Associate, effective April 6, 2020.

As Facility Associate, Matt will work closely with the Operations Director to ensure a safe, well-maintained and inviting Ronald McDonald House facility and grounds. The safety and security of the pediatric patients and their families remains top priority.

Matt earned a Bachelor of Science in Recreation Parks and Leisure Services from Minnesota State University – Mankato and brings a wealth of practical experience to his role. Matt most recently worked as a Service Technician for BBA Aviation in Rochester and previously worked as a Carpenter for Alexander and Sons Builders, focusing on new home construction and remodeling projects.

Matt enjoys spending time outdoors and participating in recreation activities such as fishing, hiking, camping, and boating.

Founded in 1980 as Northland Children’s Services, the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester, Minnesota, provides a home away from home and offers support to families seeking medical care for their children. For more information, visit www.rmhmn.org.

Braylon’s Battle

Rayman family

More than five years ago, Chase’s wife, Jenny, was airlifted to Mayo Clinic’s Methodist Hospital in Rochester—she was in premature labor. Ready or not…their son was on his way. And he was seven weeks early.

Braylon was born, but there were complications. He wasn’t making a sound and something was noticeably wrong with his skin. Braylon was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Mayo Clinic’s Saint Marys campus.

He was fighting for his life.

In the first few days, Braylon was resuscitated numerous times—his organs were not functioning properly—but he was a fighter and he pulled through.

It was only the beginning.

Braylon was diagnosed with Ichthyosis, a rare skin disorder that affects only 1 in every 600,000 babies annually. Chase and Jenny were told their son would likely be deaf and blind. And he had a more severe case of the disorder, causing additional health concerns.

Doctors recommended Braylon spend several weeks in the NICU for monitoring.

Chase and Jenny were told to call the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester and see if a room was available. There wasn’t; the family was put on the waiting list. But within only a few days, Chase and Jenny moved into the House, which is within walking distance of Saint Marys.

“The Ronald McDonald House of Rochester makes it possible for families to stay close during the most difficult time of their lives,” Jenny said. “We could not have done it without the House and our family, friends, and community.”

Three weeks later, Braylon and his parents were able to move home.

Only weeks after being released from the NICU, Braylon and his parents returned to Rochester and Mayo Clinic for a follow-up appointment. The result was miraculous. His left ear was functioning fully and his right ear was improving as well.

It was yet another testament to the family’s motto: Don’t Stop Believin’.

Braylon’s battle is not over. His health concerns still linger. But he has his hearing and vision. And Chase, Jenny, and Braylon continue to take it one day at a time—a rule Chase affectionately calls: winning the day.

“You never know what tomorrow brings, so enjoy today,” said Chase.

The Rayman family continues to support the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester by collecting and donating pop tabs.

Additionally, Chase is one of the people involved with Cans for Kids, a can collection event hosted by McNeilus Companies. McNeilus Companies parks one of its trucks in the House parking lot to accept donated aluminum cans—all proceeds directly support the children and families at the House.

“Pull a tab, save a can,” Chase said. “It is easy and it can help a family in need.”

The next collection date for Cans for Kids is Saturday, March 14, from 8 a.m. – 12 p.m. For more information, please visit https://www.rmhmn.org/cansforkids/.

Why I Volunteer

Nina, 22-year volunteer

Volunteer Nina reflected on her 22 years at the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester, Minnesota…in her own words!

I volunteer because I sincerely believe in the mission of the House. We provide a home away from home for families undergoing terrific worry and stress while hoping to get help for their seriously ill children. That’s a mission that is almost impossible to beat. And every shift I see that mission in action.

The House provides a place for a family to live and be comfortable. We also coordinate groups that want to come in and provide a meal for our families. The staff schedules recreation, therapy animals, programs, games and entertainment for all to enjoy!

Every time I volunteer, I am inspired by the children who are our guests. They are so brave. When a child is not feeling the best, they are usually very quiet, very still, and not communicating a lot. But as soon as they feel even a little bit better, they are ready to play, to give a high five, and to ask questions! And it is comforting that there are other children for them to get to know as friends.

After being here for many years, I realize the most comforting thing the House offers is that all these parents are around other families going through the same fear, worry, and uncertainty that they are. They support each other. I don’t think anyone knows what those emotions feel like unless you are experiencing them, and every family has that in common.

This is a great place to volunteer. You receive far more than you can ever give.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION ON VOLUNTEERING

Record-Setting Elena

Jon and Megan with Elena and Robbie (Photography by Broken Arrow Photography)

Megan and Jon were told it would be at least six to 12 weeks before they would be able to take their daughter home from the hospital. But Elena had other ideas.

“Elena is doing very well,” said Megan. “Nurses said she was trying to set records.”

“We know families who have been here for six months,” Jon said.

“We are very fortunate,” said Megan.

At their 20-week ultrasound, Jon and Megan found out that their daughter was missing part of her diaphragm. The ultrasound also revealed Elena’s stomach was pushed up into her chest cavity, shifting her heart to the right. When the doctor came in to discuss the ultrasound results, she told them that their baby has a serious birth defect known as congenital diaphragmatic hernia. This is a condition in which part or all of the diaphragm does not form. In Elena’s case, there was a large hole allowing abdominal organs to migrate into the chest cavity, which in turn inhibits lung growth and development.

Megan with Elena (Photography by Broken Arrow Photography)

“It was very scary,” Megan said. “It felt like a death sentence. When we learned how severe it was and read about survival rates…we were very deflated.”

Jon and Megan made a thoughtful, but difficult decision to pursue fetoscopic endoluminal tracheal occlusion (FETO)—a procedure in which a balloon is inserted into the trachea of the fetus and inflated to block the trachea. The procedure forces fluid into the lungs of the fetus helping them to grow and mature. This procedure is still rather investigational and has significant risks: uterine rupture, fetal death, infection, operative complications, early labor, and potential failure. The balloon is to be left in place for several weeks and candidates must stay within minutes of Mayo Clinic during this time period to be closely monitored and in the event of an emergency. There was also no guarantee that they would be candidates for the procedure.

Many tests later—including many ultrasounds, MRI, an amniocentesis, echocardiogram, among others—Jon and Megan were informed their baby was a candidate for the procedure.

FETO is performed in very few locations across the United States, as hospitals and clinics need FDA approval, and it is only performed in the most severe cases of CDH. The deciding factor for Megan and Jon: Mayo Clinic has a doctor who has been performing the procedure for decades across the world and has experienced great success.

The procedure would once again prove successful.

Elena was born without much complication, but she required immediate intubation and respiratory support in the two days leading up to her hernia repair surgery. She had a very severe hernia that they assumed would require a patch to close. Doctors also indicated that her diaphragm would never function as a diaphragm, but that the patch would be used to keep her abdominal organs from coming up into her chest cavity once again. They wouldn’t know the extent until they made the incision.

Megan with Elena (Photography by Broken Arrow Photography)

“I was very nervous,” Megan said. “They were going to cut open my little baby. Surgery is always a risk. There was a very real possibility that I would never see my baby again.

“It was pretty traumatic.”

But the surgeon was pleasantly surprised. They were able to move Elena’s organs into their correct places and were able to use her diaphragm tissue to close the hernia.

“It was amazing,” Jon said. “Simply amazing.”

The surgeon said Elena did very well, but warned that things may get worse before they get better. But Elena didn’t waiver and continually amazed doctors and defied the odds. There is a chance it will herniate again and she may need another surgery. But recovery is going very well.

Elena does not have any heart abnormalities. Initially she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, but that has since subsided.

Every congenital diaphragmatic hernia case is variable and doctors need to be ready for a variety or potential problems but little intervention was needed as Elena exceeded expectations.

Doctors told Jon and Megan that Elena would have been in a very different state without this procedure.

Jon and Megan with Robbie and Elena (Photography by Broken Arrow Photography)

“We are so lucky,” said Megan. “The doctors and nurses are incredible—they have become our family. We are very confident in the care Elena has received.

“We are so fortunate to live near a world-class facility like Mayo.”

After arriving in Rochester for the procedure, Mayo Clinic social workers recommended Megan and Jon call the Ronald McDonald House. They knew about the House, but they did not know if they would be able to stay because their child was not yet born. They learned that parents receiving care at Mayo for fetal surgery and high risk pregnancy are able to stay at the House.

The family was 43rd on the waiting list and waited 12 days for a room—an issue the House hopes is reduced with its expansion. Because Megan and Jon did not have enough money for an extended stay in a hotel, the family contemplated staying in a small camper until there was a room at the House, which would not have been the most comfortable living arrangement at 30 weeks pregnant.

“More rooms and less of a wait time is huge,” Megan said. “I honestly don’t know what we would have done without the House.”

And with their two-year-old son Robbie roaming the halls, the House truly became a home away from home and a refuge after long days and weeks. Extended family members visited and looked after their son while Jon and Megan were with their daughter in the hospital and the House activities made it easy to spend time together as a family.

Megan with Robbie and Elena (Photography by Broken Arrow Photography)

“Robbie loves the House,” said Megan. “He has made so many friends.”

“I couldn’t imagine being cooped up in a hotel room for all this time,” Jon said.

The support from other guest families is what meant the most to Megan. They felt very fortunate to be able to bond with other families in similar situations as theirs.

In addition to the other children and families, the House is made a home by the hundreds of volunteers who donate their time.

“You come in and the volunteers know you by name and they know your story,” said Megan. “They want to be here. They truly love what they’re doing.”

And the House is fresh off of its capital campaign, which raised more than $17 million and received more than 1,600 unique gifts to add more guest rooms and community spaces.

“So many people who donate to the House or volunteer here will never even use this facility,” Jon said. “It’s incredible…”

Jon with Elena (Photography by Broken Arrow Photography)

Elena did end up setting records, as she went home with her parents after only four weeks, which was several weeks ahead of the original timeline.

“I don’t know if we would have felt like this journey was possible without the Ronald McDonald House,” said Megan. “We would have tried, but it would have been so much harder.”

“We wouldn’t have been able to have the life-saving procedure for our baby without the House,” Jon said.

“It’s more than we could have ever imagined,” Megan said.

“And now it feels like…I can’t even put it into words…it feels like our home,” said Jon.

Jon and Megan with Elena and Robbie (Photography by Broken Arrow Photography)

Sadie’s Smile

Sadie (Photography by RichAlan Photography)

Ever since Sadie was a baby, she had respiratory issues related to swallowing difficulties. But, because of the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester, Minnesota…she never stopped smiling.

“Sadie is excited when we leave for Rochester,” said Sherry, Sadie’s mom. “Because it’s not about the clinic—it’s about the Ronald McDonald House. She associates the House with the clinic. It makes everything easier. She focuses on the House.

“She loves the staff, the activities and the playrooms. And she really loves the shuttle drivers who take us from the House to the clinic.”

And Sadie isn’t the only one.

“I cannot put into words how I feel about the Ronald McDonald House,” Sherry said. “It’s so wonderful. It’s hard for me to put it into words without getting emotional.”

Sadie (Photography by RichAlan Photography)

When Sadie was several months old, she was diagnosed with a laryngeal cleft—a rare congenital abnormality affecting the larynx and esophagus, resulting in difficulty swallowing, among other signs and symptoms. It occurs in approximately 1 in 20,000 live births and is more common in boys than girls. When Sadie was first diagnosed, Sherry was told, “It’s something we [doctors] always look for, but never see.”

But it was Sadie’s diagnosis.

“Hearing her diagnosis was difficult, but hearing it was a congenital diagnosis was even more difficult,” Sherry said. “I did a lot of questioning myself.”

In an attempt to gather additional information on next steps for Sadie, Sherry and Sadie visited several specialists, some of whom did not agree with the initial diagnosis. Sadie’s symptoms worsened and she suffered from pneumonia twice—something was definitely wrong. When Sherry was debating taking Sadie to Mayo Clinic, one of Sadie’s therapists strongly encouraged Sherry to do so.

Sadie (Photography by RichAlan Photography)

The doctors at Mayo Clinic agreed with the original diagnosis. After a great deal of testing, Sadie had surgery to repair the cleft. Seven months later she had another surgery to revise the repair.

“The doctor who did the surgery was great—it’s what he does,” Sherry said. “We were told it is his area of expertise. And it is such a unique culture at Mayo. Sadie was more than a diagnosis—doctors and nurses knew her by name. We received incredible care.

“And she’s doing very well.”

But it may not have been possible without the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester.

“I don’t know what we would have done without the Ronald McDonald House,” Sherry said. “We may not have been able to travel back and forth to Mayo Clinic. Her health was my top priority, but there were so many other challenges and obstacles.

“The House alleviated so much stress.”

Sherry knew about Ronald McDonald Houses before arriving in Rochester, but said “there is something different about the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester.”

“It’s the people,” said Sherry. “The staff is amazing—the most caring and compassionate people you could ever imagine.

Sadie (Photography by RichAlan Photography)

“I also think the volunteers don’t fully realize the impact they have on the lives of the people who stay at the House. Anything we needed—no matter what it was—volunteers would say: that’s why we’re here.

“They help make it so you can just focus on your child.”

The Ronald McDonald House of Rochester recently opened its expansion. The expanded House has 70 guest rooms and additional community spaces. It is the largest House in the state of Minnesota and one of the largest in the country and the world.

“We followed the progress of the expansion from the very beginning,” said Sherry. “It is so beautiful and will be so appreciated by the families who stay at the House.”

Sadie is doing well and has only follow-up appointments at this point.

“I can’t fully explain what the House did for my family,” Sherry said. “It’s not only the resources the house provides—it’s the other families and their stories. It’s a life-changing place.

“And if everybody everywhere was treated the way you are treated at the House…the world would be a very different place.”

Sadie (Photography by RichAlan Photography)