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Ronald McDonald House helps families with sick children

January 31, 2012
By Kristy MacKaben

It was Christmas Day 2010. The McNulty family of Altoona huddled around a Christmas tree opening presents. That Christmas, however, was much different from the years before.

Liz and Dan McNulty, and their daughters Meredith, (now 7), Samantha (now 6) and Lainey (now 2) were two hours from home at the Ronald McDonald House in Pittsburgh, praying the youngest child, Case, would be OK.

Case, who was born four days prior, had been born with numerous congenital anomalies and was being treated at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Article Photos

Mirror Moms photo
by Gary M. Baranec
The McNulty family (from left) are Liz with Lainey, 2; Samantha, 6; Dan holding son, Case, 1; and Meredith, 7. Case, born with
congenital anomalies, was in Children’s?Hospital of Pittsburgh for 38 days after his birth. Liz stayed in a Ronald McDonald House until Case was released.

Though he was full-term, Case only weighed 2 pounds, 13 ounces.

His parents, Dan and Liz McNulty, had no idea when he would be released or whether their baby would grow to be a healthy adult.

Case, who just turned 1, stayed at Children's for 38 days after his birth.

Though Dan and the girls were forced to return to Altoona, Liz never left the Ronald McDonald House until Case was released.

"There was still a great need to be there. There were so many issues," Liz said.

The causes of Case's anomalies are unknown, and he still visits specialists frequently.

Because Case's issues were detected early, Liz had planned to give birth in Pittsburgh, and she expected Case would have to stay for an extended period of time. Other babies are transferred from area hospitals to Pittsburgh without any preparations.

Dan and Jacquie Coffin of Hollidaysburg had no idea their youngest son, Jackson, (now 5 months) would be born with difficulties.

Jacquie had an uneventful pregnancy and gave birth to Jackson two weeks early.

Immediately following an emergency C-section, Jackson was transferred to Conemaugh Hospital in Johnstown, and a couple days later to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Jackson was diagnosed with a rare disorder - severe hemolytic disease of the newborn - a result of antibodies from Jacquie's blood crossing over the placenta and attacking Jackson's red blood cells.

The red blood cell breakdown resulted in Jackson being severely jaundiced.

During his time in the hospital, Jackson had to undergo life-saving blood transfusions and other treatments and close monitoring.

It was a scary time for the Coffins, who also have a 2-year-old son, Ashton, but they were grateful to have top-notch treatment and to be able to utilize the Ronald McDonald House, where Jacquie stayed for more than a month.

"It offered us what we needed - a place to crash for a few hours and collect our thoughts," Jacquie said.

Children's Hospital often treats babies who are born premature, are in need of surgery or have issues that local hospitals cannot handle.

Altoona Regional Health System transfers about 5 percent of newborns to a different facility - usually the babies are initially transferred to Conemaugh Hospital and later to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh if more extensive treatment is necessary.

"The babies are transferred in cases where they require a higher level of care," Julie Vitko, nurse manager of the maternity and nursery at Altoona Regional Hospital, said.

Children's Hospital specializes in treating babies and children, and offers support to families from out-of-town.

"We see some of the sickest of the sick," said Janet Fogle, supervisor of clinical social work department at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Families whose children are undergoing treatment are assigned a social worker and a care manager who work together to make sure the family's needs are met, Fogle said.

Whether it's medical equipment needed after the child is released or a place to stay while the child is being treated, the social worker and care manager advocate for the family.

Most often families looking for a place to stay are referred to the Ronald McDonald House, which is connected by a walkway to Children's Hospital.

The facility usually charges families $15 a night, but families who cannot afford the cost can be sponsored.

For families living 40 miles from Pittsburgh, the Ronald McDonald House provides temporary housing, which includes a one-bedroom suite with a kitchenette, bathroom and living area.

"What our goal is here is to help provide them with all the necessities and a place to sleep so they can focus solely on the wellbeing of their child," said Lynn Ussack, community relations specialist with the Pittsburgh Ronald McDonald House.

The house has a play area for children, a laundry room and a large kitchen to share with other families, which is where community organizations often donate home-cooked meals for families.

Liz remembers the meals being a highlight of the stay at the Ronald McDonald House.

"Frequently we got families that would cook home-cooked meals. I would miss turkey and roast beef and pasta really bad, and they would make that for us. It made it so much easier," Liz said.

Though the Ronald McDonald House offered many comforts, being away from home was a challenge for the McNulty and Coffin families.

Jacquie stayed the entire time in Pittsburgh, while Dan came to the hospital as much as possible, he had to continue to work.

Jacquie's parents and Dan's mother helped to take care of Ashton.

"It was a challenge being away from our other son since we knew he didn't fully understand, and we missed him very much," Jacquie said.

Liz also missed her three daughters while she stayed in Pittsburgh. Her husband, Dan, brought the girls to Pittsburgh as much as possible, but Dan had to work at DelGrosso's Foods and the two older girls had school.

"I missed Dan and the girls so much," Liz said.

While parents are worrying about their children in the hospital, life goes on at home, which can often be challenging.

"The struggle is oftentimes maintaining two different households. How do you afford to stay at Children's with your baby or child, yet you still have obligations at home," Fogle said. "You still have a rent payment or mortgage payment. You have other children at home. You need to figure out how you can care for them. That can be a major struggle for families. You, as a parent, you feel like you need to be two places at one time."

Luckily, the Coffin and McNulty families had a strong support system, and a lot of help from family and friends.

For both families their babies' hospital stays were a trying time, but they are thankful their children are alive and doing well.

Jackson is gaining weight, though he might have difficulties as a result of his anemia and severe jaundice.

He continues to be monitored by doctors and specialists.

"I'm so thankful my son is alive and making progress," Jacquie said.

Case still has difficulties and is underweight for a 1-year-old, though he seems to be hitting milestones.

Doctors are unsure what complications Case might experience as a result of the anomalies, but Liz doesn't want to change a thing about her son.

"I wouldn't change him, even in my hardest moments. I'm so thankful for him just because of all the love he has brought," Liz said. "He's considered disabled, but I think he's perfect. I wouldn't change him because he's just so cool."



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