The gift of togetherness with a baby in the NICU

By Anna Whitlock

Sitting in line at the McDonalds drive-thru, I wait my turn to pay for my usual morning order: medium iced caramel mocha, no whipped cream. The local classic country station on my radio plays some early years George Strait as I watch the gentleman in the sedan before me toss his remnant change into the yellow rectangular donation box under the cashier’s window. An overwhelming sense of satisfaction warms my soul as a smile sneaks onto my face. I wonder if he knows the impact his action will have on the life of a family, like it did mine. 

At eighteen years old, I found out that I was expecting my first child with my husband of a mere five months. I was young and naïve, mesmerized by the soft pink aura that swirls around the baby girl section in the department store. I never expected anything to go less than normal as my December due date approached. The night I went into labor, I blindly assumed that with the help of an epidural, I’d be gleefully cradling a fresh-skinned newborn in just a few hours.

Funny how life takes our plans and turns them on their heads.

At 7:44 the following morning, the pale, near lifeless body of my baby was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care room of the military hospital where I gave birth. The labor and delivery nurse reassured me that all would be fine, babies survive difficult births like this all the time and she’d be back in my arms before I knew it.

But she wasn’t. In fact, that evening my daughter would be transported almost two hours away to the nearest Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in order to save her life. My world was shattered in an instant. My baby was in critical condition and my doctor advised against checking myself out of the hospital, to allow my body some small amount of recovery. I refused to leave her alone, so I had to send my husband away with her. They couldn’t give us a tentative release date but informed us that she would be under their care for a while.

My husband, an active duty Marine, brought home a meager income and I didn’t have a job. We already lived paycheck to paycheck, so how in the world would we scrounge up the money to stay in even the cheapest of hotels to be near our daughter? How would we pay for the gas to travel to and from her hospital? Or worse, would we be forced to leave her there until she was released because we couldn’t afford to be by her side?

Thankfully, the NICU connected us with a social worker who introduced us to a charitable organization that could assist our family where we fell short. Although its name held a blaring sense of familiarity, I had never heard of the organization before, nor did I know what a difference they would make in our lives that year.

The Ronald McDonald House Charities’ mission statement is “to create, find and support programs that directly improve the health and well-being of children and their families.” Their largest contribution to this mission is through their support homes, the Ronald McDonald Houses.

Having more than 360 houses situated near hospitals around the world, the Ronald McDonald House offers a place to stay for families of critically ill children seeking treatment, at little to no cost. Offering a bed to sleep in and an array of additional amenities, they provide as much as they can to families in need. They believe that “nothing else should matter when a family is focused on the health of their child.”

That belief is what saved our family while we fought to save our daughter.

After the start of our frightening ordeal, I was exhausted, heartbroken, and hurting. Although my daughter bore the brunt of the difficult labor, my body took a beating as well. I hadn’t slept in days, as is usual for both pregnant and laboring women. When my daughter left, sleep continued to elude me. In the military hospital, I was surrounded by the joyful noise of healthy babies crying, yet the only sounds coming from the darkness of my sterile, isolated hospital room were the muffled sobs of a mother with empty arms and a longing heart.

Upon being released, I travelled over 75 miles to reunite with my husband and child. She lay tucked away in a protective incubator, connected to every tube and wire you could imagine, in a medically induced coma to prevent her from fighting against the high frequency ventilator that was keeping her alive. Although appearing to be in a peaceful slumber, it was obvious that our baby was in a fight for her life. Enduring both mental and physical pain, I stood by her side for several hours until the social worker came and offered to show us to the Ronald McDonald House around the corner.

It’s been over ten years since we found ourselves on the doorsteps of the Ronald McDonald House of Eastern North Carolina, but I can still remember the feeling I had every time we’d enter through the front doors or when the elevator opened on the second floor right by Room 228, the room we called home for a few hours every night during our two week stay.

I was fighting against the depression that sometimes follows even textbook deliveries coupled with the guilt of my body having failed my daughter and myself, so the sense of relief the Ronald McDonald House provided us was monumental. Being freed from the stress of a heavy financial burden allowed me to focus my attention on supporting my baby through her recovery. Being just minutes from the hospital allowed us the opportunity to rush to our daughter’s side when early one morning she took a turn for the worse.

On Christmas Eve, a time when many families gathered around the table with their loved ones to celebrate the joy of the season, we were blessed to share a hearty Christmas dinner at the Ronald McDonald House, given by a local church who volunteered their time to feed us as well as several other families in situations much like our own. The following morning, our daughter was taken off of the breathing machine, giving us our first opportunity to hold her in our arms. 

My daughter continued to see improvement and two weeks after her traumatic delivery, she was released from the hospital. As we checked out of the Ronald McDonald House, we were told that the room was of no charge to us, but a donation would largely benefit a family that would take our place. We gave what we could afford and as we prepared to head home, the receptionist told us she had one more gift in store.

She led me into a room with quilts in an assortment of colors and designs lining the shelves, all donated to the house and given to the families upon their departure. My daughter’s quilt is a beautiful patchwork of white and pastel yellow checkered squares. Over ten years later, it still adorns her bed, serving as a beautiful reminder of the love and care our family received during one of the most difficult times in our lives.

My family walked away from the Ronald McDonald House with more than just a healthy baby girl. We saw, first hand, the importance of generosity. We witnessed the impact of philanthropic work in the lives of families going through trying times. 

The cashier breaks my concentration at the window as she hands me back the change from my morning coffee. I let the money fall from my fingers and carefully slide each bill into the yellow donation box. She smiles politely as she thanks me for my contribution. Little does she know it’s me who should be thanking them.

Anna Whitlock lives wherever the military sends her family next. She is a full-time student at the University of Central Florida and mom to four beautifully busy miracles.

For more information on the Ronald McDonald House Charities and how you can donate to the and support a family in need, please visit their website at www.rmhc.org.

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