By: Jean Bolduc The News & Observer
For 16-year-old Mellie White, the Ronald McDonald House is a home away from home where she feels like a normal teenager … almost.
Mellie has gastroparesis, a condition that affects her ability to digest food. It’s a complex condition that requires frequent medical treatment and hospitalizations.
The Whites live in Jacksonville and UNC Hospitals, where Mellie receives her treatment, is not close enough to let her sleep in her own bed after a day’s treatment or an outpatient surgery.
For many parents, staying with their sick child during medical treatments would mean sleeping at the bedside, leaving them even more exhausted and stressed.
That’s where Chapel Hill’s Ronald McDonald House comes in, providing comfortable accommodations and case management while eliminating the financial burden of an extended hotel stay.
The house held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday for an expansion that has been 10 years in the making. Five new buildings around a courtyard house 24 guest rooms, including long-term suites and apartments for bone-marrow transplant patients. The 1-acre courtyard has gardens, meditation areas, two playgrounds and a patio for outdoor dining.
For Mellie’s mom, Melanie White, it’s more than comfort. She believes her daughter’s life was likely saved at least once because she was staying at the Ronald McDonald House and not three hours away in Jacksonville.
“She had a bleed,” White said. “If we had been home, she might not have made it to the hospital.”
White said the staff at the house is like an extended family for her and for the other parents whose children are staying there. “We all support each other,” she said.
Often, she says, helping a family with greater medical challenges helps her keep a perspective and a positive attitude. Her daughter stays very positive, White said. “Mellie is tube fed. She can’t eat food, but she enjoys fixing my plate for dinner.”
The house allows patients to feel a greater sense of independence than a hospital can provide. Thanks to a donation, the house has a piano, which Mellie has been enjoying recently. She’s written four songs while staying there.
Although the McDonald’s Corporation is a major sponsor of individual Ronald McDonald houses, each one is an individual nonprofit corporation, responsible for its own fundraising.
Families, who must live over 35 miles from the hospital where the patient is receiving treatment, are not charged for their stay, though donations of any size are welcome.
Meals are provided to all who stay at the house as is transportation to and from UNC Hospitals.
“The staff really gets involved with the family,” said White. “They know everyone’s names, they know when the next treatment is coming up and what’s involved.”
Indeed, she said, the Ronald McDonald staff knows that a child’s serious illness is something that happens to the whole family. The facility has play areas, TV rooms and more to let kids be kids. That means siblings, too.
The Healing Arts program allows patients to participate in crafts, music, dance and many forms of therapeutic activities, sponsored by the local YMCA, the N.C. Botanical Garden and Carolina Performing Arts.
The Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill opened in 1988 to provide lodging and support for families of children receiving treatment at area hospitals, most at N.C. Children’s Hospital. Last year, it served more than 2,200 families but had to turn away another 800 because of lack of space. The $7.6 million expansion doubles the center’s capacity.