Where magic is expected

Inside Calgary’s Ronald McDonald House stands a furry blue monster welcoming children. Sulley, the soft, friendly hero from the animated movie Monsters Inc., is hard to miss and easy to hug.

Michelle Grodecki of Medicine Hat spends some time away from the Alberta Children’s Hospital with her newborn

Inside Calgary’s Ronald McDonald House stands a furry blue monster welcoming children.

Sulley, the soft, friendly hero from the animated movie Monsters Inc., is hard to miss and easy to hug.

It’s at the top of the stairs and near a special room designed to distract sick children and their siblings from what brought them to the house in the first place.

Once the door is unlocked to the richly-coloured Magic Room, children’s eyes open wide. It’s like Disneyland has come to them.

The young guest waves a wand, says “abracadabrah” and watches as the doors of the make-believe castle open electronically. The child then sits in a purple plush chair and has their photo taken.

Behind a closed door is the biggest surprise of all — donated new toys. The child leaves with a gift of their choice.

“Whether the child is sick or it’s one of their siblings, we try to get them into this room at least once,” said Larry Mathieson, executive director of Ronald McDonald Houses of Alberta. “We try to make it a special experience for them.”

Mathieson said a similar Magic Room will bring smiles in Red Deer. Many features found at the Calgary and Edmonton houses will be at Red Deer house.

There will be improvements, too.

“We designed in the Red Deer build for the play room to be right across from the food prep area,” said Mathieson. “While you are making dinner, you can see your kids.”

Children are meant to feel at home. There’s a range of programs to divert their attention from the nearby Calgary Children’s Hospital.

There’s a play room, craft room, playground, library and teen room.

A teacher is also on hand to ensure children don’t get too far behind in their education.

“We’re trying to keep as much continuity as we can,” said Mathieson.

Comfort and flexibility are also key.

“Obviously, we have rules because we have 23 families in one house, but when they clean up their room is up to them, when they eat is up to them,” said Ashley Wager, communications manager for Ronald McDonald House Southern Alberta.

Families make their own meals, but are also welcome to have a hot meal provided a couple times a week by various groups in town. Bakers also come.

Mathieson said they want to provide as many conveniences as they can.

“Families come here because they need an affordable place to stay, but we believe that this is the least we can do,” he said. “We’re always trying to think of new ways to take the edge off their stress.”

After all, Ronald McDonald House can become a family’s home for months on end.

Except for a short stint, Michelle Grodecki, 26, of Medicine Hat has been living at the Calgary house for six months. Her twin boys were born April 27, 14 weeks early.

Oscar was born weighing 1.049 kg (two pounds, five ounces) while James came in at 1.134 kg (two pounds, eight ounces). Because they were born so early, they were kept in the hospital for some time.

The family did return to Medicine Hat, where Grodecki’s husband Nick is working. Nineteen days later, Oscar suffered a bowel perforation. He was airlifted back to the Children’s Hospital.

“He was in critical condition for three weeks,” said Grodecki, seated in the great room where parents like to sit and chat.

Oscar wore a colostomy bag for two months. Doctors recently closed the baby’s belly.

“Now we’re just waiting for the bowel to function properly again,” Grodecki said. “He has to gain some more weight and then we can go home.”

Being so close to the hospital, Grodecki said it appears the doctors are more willing to give day passes for Oscar.

Through this experience, she’s developed close friendships with other families.

“When you are having a bad day, you can go to one of them and ask them about procedures and what to expect,” Grodecki said. “When a child has their last cancer treatment, we are all happy for each other. When there’s a setback, we are sad for each other.”

Staff go out of their way to console and help families.

“When we came back in July, we were so financially strapped because we had been here since April,” Grodecki said. “The staff got together and gave us gift cards. There’s a private donor who was going to cover our October stay because we’re overextended.”

Staff also gave Grodecki two free tickets to the zoo, so she and James could go.

“Sometimes you are at the hospital for so long that it becomes your life. So staff is really good at recognizing when you are burned out and that it’s OK to leave your (sick) child for a day.”

Grodecki expects to be using Ronald McDonald House off and on as James also needs eye surgery.

“Having a premature baby is one of the scariest things you go through,” she said.

But with support readily at hand, it’s made the experience easier for the young mom.

Grodecki is so pleased to hear Ronald McDonald House in Red Deer will serve families with critically ill babies, sick children and high risk pregnancies.

“It’s an amazing thing what they are going to do for those moms (in the central region),” Grodecki said. “It would be awesome if there were more houses like this.”

Contact Laura Tester at ltester@bprda.wpengine.com

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