Our Families

At just six weeks old, TJ was diagnosed with a heart condition. His doctors in Pembroke, NC referred him to Duke Children’s Hospital, where he underwent a surgery that lasted more than five hours. The surgery closed holes in TJ’s heart.

While TJ recovered in the hospital for more than a week, TJ’s parents, Shaletta and Kelvin, stayed close by at the Ronald McDonald House. Lucas and Destiny, TJ’s older brother and sister were able to stay at the House too.

The Ronald McDonald House kept the family together when they needed each other most.

Shaletta fears that TJ will need to undergo multiple surgeries to manage his heart disease, but she is hopeful for the future. “It’s likely that we’ll be back again, but it’s comforting knowing that there’s a place where our family can be together,” said Shaletta.

“The Ronald McDonald House has made a big difference. It really is a home away from home.”

Find out how your gifts are helping Alessia and her mother while they wait for a heart transplant.

Alessia was just five years old when she was diagnosed with bone cancer. Her doctor in Washington, NC, sent her to Duke Children’s Hospital where Alessia underwent chemotherapy. Throughout her treatment, Alessia’s mom, Shontae, slept in the big blue chair next to her daughter’s bed. Thankfully, the treatment worked; Alessia’s cancer is in remission.

Two years later, Alessia was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The chemotherapy that miraculously cured her cancer also permanently damaged her heart.

Alessia and Shontae returned to Duke, and, this time, Shontae was referred to the Ronald McDonald House. Shontae shared, “It was hard coming to the House at first. I didn’t want to leave Alessia alone at night, but the staff at Duke insisted that I needed rest.”

After recovering from surgery to improve the functioning of her heart, she joined her mother at the Ronald McDonald House to wait for a new heart.

Shontae shares that nine-year-old Alessia is happy at the House, “The home cooked meals and activities are Alessia’s favorite. She loves playing Bingo.” She explains that the Durham House is keeping her strong while so far from home, “It’s been really good here. I’ve met friends here. They’re like our family. I thank God for that – I don’t know what I would do without them.”

While doctors cared for Collin, the Family Room gave his family the support they needed to stay close to their son. Thank you for your gifts that kept Collin’s family together during a difficult time.

In February 2015, five-year-old Collin suffered severe head trauma after a sledding accident. The closest pediatric neurosurgeons near his family’s Wake County home were at Duke Hospital.

Just when things seemed as stressful as they could be, Collin’s mother, Meagan, became ill. “I was sick and felt terrible being in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit), having to rush out every ten minutes,” she said.

With every minute spent away from Collin feeling like hours, Meagn’s husband, Aaron, went searching for a way to help his wife stay closer to her son. That’s when he discovered the Ronald McDonald Family Room, a space right in the hospital where Meagan could shower, brush her teeth and even charge her phone.

“Even in the short time there, that room was worth its weight in gold,” Meagan said.

At the age of three, Angelina lost her left kidney to Wilm’s Tumor, a pediatric cancer.

When she and her grandmother, Wanda, came to Duke Children’s Hospital in August 2011, Angelina was beginning a new battle – this time, fighting to save her right kidney.

During six months of cancer treatments, Angelina and Wanda spent 110 nights at the Ronald McDonald House. During their stay, Angelina found something she never expected – a “BFF.”

“Best Friends Forever”

Angelina and Nick, the brother of twins born three months premature, met in the House playroom. Soon, Nick was praying for Angelina every night. “It meant so much, that, on his own, a child would do this,” says Wanda.

Nick and Angelina spent lots of time together. On days she wasn’t up to playing, the friends quietly watched movies.

“We all need someone right there,” says Wanda. It was wonderful that Angelina had a friend with her. She was happy.”

Angelina’s Turn

In April 2013, Nick’s family was back at the Ronald McDonald House to consult with doctors about a cyst found in his brain. Much to his suprise, Angelina arrived that same day for a routine checkup.

Reunited, it was Angelina’s turn to offer love and support to Nick. Strong-willed Angelina insisted, “Youre not going to let a little tumor bother you after all we’e been through, are you?”

Nick’s mother, Jennifer, says that Angelina gave him the confidence he needed to fight his own battle.

“Being in the House gives you a sense of peace and family and comfort and love. You’re not the only one going through hard times,” Jennifer said.

Separated by many miles, the friends stay in touch with regular phone calls. As Nick’s mom says, “We didn’t make friends at the ronald McDonald House, we made family.”

20-year-old Cameron is one of a kind. An aspiring singer/song-writer from Winder, Georgia, the young man is a vibrant character with a great sense of humor. And he’s also a patient in the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant unit at Duke Children’s Hospital.

Cameron was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria—a rare genetic disease—in September of 2011 after showing strange symptoms during a trip with friends to Florida. After some time at other hospitals low on resources and even lower on optimism, Cameron and his family finally found Duke, where they feel Cameron is receiving the very best care.

In finding Duke, they also found the Ronald McDonald House of Durham, where the family’s burden can be eased and where Cameron can stay positive. Cameron gets peace of mind knowing his family is helped financially and seeing all the pleasant folks who come through the House.

At this point, not much can keep Cameron’s optimism down. He spends his time doing what matters: playing games with his family, writing poetry and chatting up the hospital nurses.

Cameron and stepmother Miriam have been at the House for 140 nights, while his father Terry and two siblings, Taylor (18) and Jazmyn (9), must send their love from back in Winder. “They miss me,” said Cameron. “But they understand this is the best place for me to be right now.”

Cameron and Miriam expect to visit home soon, and then return to the Ronald McDonald House for a few more weeks, before returning to Winder for good.

In 2014 the Ronald McDonald House served 943 families like Cameron’s – offering more than 16,000 nights of care.

“One can never pay in gratitude; one can only pay ‘in kind’ somewhere else in life.”

– Anne Morrow Lindenburg

Those words have stuck with mother Michele Long long since her time in the Ronald McDonald Family Room in WakeMed hospital. In January of 2012, her son Zachary was born at just 26 weeks gestation. He weighed only 2.89 pounds and needed careful attention in the NICU. Far from their home of Pittsburgh, the Long family often found comfort and refuge in the Family Room while they anxiously waited for little Zachary to grow stronger.

“Those earlier days were hard, and so were those many months our family was separated,” said Michele. “There were many days I came to the Ronald McDonald Family Room to take a breath, make calls, cry and sometimes just have a good old conversation.”

The volunteers became her support system in a troublesome time. “Whatever the reason for my trip down from the NICU, there was always a genuine smile awaiting me,” she said. For just a moment, she could forget her worries.

With much courage and a little hope and love, the Long family is home and at ease with Zachary, now 2 years old. As of 2013 alone, Zachary had grown to a healthy 20 lbs. 6 oz.

The family has scarce forgotten the difference the folks in the Family Room made during the road to recovery. In fact, they offered a gift to current Family Room guests to pay forward the support they received when it was needed most.

“You probably have no idea how much each one of you has left your imprint on our lives and the many others who have walked into the Ronald McDonald Family Room,” Michele said. It made a world of difference.

The Ronald McDonald House of Durham offers a Family Room in the children’s hospitals at Duke and WakeMed. It’s a place to rest and regroup right at the hospital, just moments away from a family’s sick child. Thanks to the community’s strong support, the Family Rooms hosted nearly 45,000 visits in 2013.

See how you can be a warm smile for families like the Longs by contacting Karen Morgan at Karen@RMHDurham.org.

Family Room Sponsorship Opportunities

Stock the shelves: Donate items from our Wish List to help us stock the shelves of the Family Rooms at Duke and WakeMed Children’s Hospitals.

Monthly Sponsorship: Donate $2,500 to sponsor the Duke or WakeMed Family Room for one month.

When 4-year-old Lexie Harding isn’t watching Peppa Pig on mom’s phone, she’s all giggles, fist bumps and high fives. Lexie is a patient at the Duke Children’s AHC Clinic, a whopping 8-hour drive from her hometown of Warner Robins, Georgia. This is her and mother Jaimi’s fourth stay with The Ronald McDonald House of Durham since her diagnosis of Alternating Hemiplegia of Childhood.

In August, Lexie was unexpectedly admitted for 17 days to Duke Hospital. Jaimi said RMHD and The Ronald McDonald Family Room made all the difference in a time of stress and uncertainty. While RMHD Family Services helped the Hardings with ever-changing reservation dates, the hospital Family Room was a sanctuary where Jaimi could do laundry and grab a simple cup of coffee before returning to Lexie’s side. “Those little things mean a lot when you’re stuck on the fifth floor of the hospital for 17 days,” said Jaimi.

Once Lexie was finally discharged, she and her mother checked in to RMHD, a major source of comfort after over two weeks of hospital room stay. “This is not a hotel,” Jami said. “It’s a home.”

During their stays, Lexie is a regular in the play room and therapy dog sessions, and Jaimi makes use of the kitchen facilities, where she can talk with other parents who truly understand her experience. “It’s almost like you’re meeting long-lost family,” she said.

Back in Warner Robins, Lexie has two sisters, 6-year-old Cheyenne and 16-year-old Jessica, who are staying with their father while the three await Lexie and Jaimi’s return. They visited RMHD in July, where they enjoyed the chance to reunite as a family. Jaimi said Jessica and Lexie especially enjoyed Thursday Bingo Night, where they played and socialized with Duke University football players.

Jaimi had one word to describe her feelings for RMHD: grateful.

Marcus Jr. has been battling a blood disease, though you wouldn’t know it by his big smile. It took a month in the intensive care unit before doctors diagnosed Marcus with HLH, an exceptionally rare blood disease that affects fewer than one million children each year. After several hospitalizations, the doctors determined that a bone marrow transplant at Duke Children’s Hospital would be the best treatment option.

Thankfully, Marcus Jr. had a hero nearby—his younger brother, Cortez, was a perfect match for the bone marrow transplant that has cured him.

“The House is truly a home away from home for us,” said mom Keyerra. “Faith and family got us through.” During treatment, the Ronald McDonald House was full of love and comfort that sustained Marcus and his family during their most stressful days and Marcus had his family close by when he needed them most.

Six-year-old Natalie suffers from a variety of neurological issues, though you wouldn’t know it by her vibrant smile.

Natalie experiences headaches, mood swings, fainting, and spiked-fevers on a regular basis. Her doctor in South Carolina connected some of her symptoms with nystagmus — a rapid, uncontrollable movement of the eyes. Despite surgery, her symptoms persisted.

Natalie’s mother, Jamie, continued to search for answers. After a local specialist in South Carolina refused their health insurance, Natalie and her mother traveled to Duke University Hospital.

Throughout days of testing and examinations, the Ronald McDonald House became Natalie and Jamie’s home-away-from home. Ronald McDonald House created a network of support and love for the family during their most stressful days.

Although Natalie’s doctors were unable to determine a conclusive diagnosis, Natalie and Jamie are hopeful for the future. Because the House provided a comfortable room, warm meals, and a caring support system, Jamie has been able to focus on what’s most important – Natalie.

We are grateful to the volunteers and supporters who give children support, stability and the best medicine of all – a mother’s love.

Suzanna says, “Thank You”

A young boy sits at a table in the dining room of the Ronald McDonald House of Durham. Despite the heavy bandage on the back of his head, he entertains himself with Legos while his mother eats. Having faced the unwilling surgeons back home in Spartanburg, SC, Lucas and his mother, Suzanna, came to Duke Children’s Hospital as their last resort for the complex surgery needed to save his life.

Lucas, a dinosaur-loving seven-year-old, suffers from Chiari Malformation, a disease in which the brain herniates down into the spinal cord and leads to a dangerous compression of the brain. During the operation, Lucas’s doctor removed part of his skull and vertebra to create more space for his brain.

Aside from the bandage on his head, there are no indications that Lucas had brain surgery just five days ago. He is energetic, playful, and completely focused on his Legos. Lucas easily rattles off facts about dinosaurs when asked and, instead of watching cartoons during his recovery in the hospital, Lucas watched dinosaur videos on YouTube. As the mother of an aspiring paleontologist, Suzanna dreams of one day taking Lucas to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

An Update on Lucas

The recovery process was difficult for Lucas and his family, but Suzanna credits the Ronald McDonald House for lessening the pain by adding comfort and camaraderie. If not for the hospitality the House, Suzanna would have been confined to the hospital. Her meals would have come solely from the hospital cafeteria, and her human contact would have been limited to doctors and nurses. The House, however, was a positive force during the family’s time in Durham. Suzanna formed special relationships with other parents at the House, some of whose children were even on the same floor as Lucas in the hospital. Suzanna summed up her gratitude with a simple statement: “This place is great!”

Initially, Lucas’s doctors weren’t sure of the surgery’s success, although some of Lucas’s symptoms had. Suzanna worried that the surgery might have been for naught. However, her fears were put to rest when Lucas returned back to his normal self and joined the baseball team in the spring. Suzanna and Lucas will always remember and be thankful for the generosity and kindness found at the Ronald McDonald House.

“There is nothing scarier than hearing that there is something wrong with your unborn child and you can’t do anything about it,” said Jeff. Jeff and Tiffany’s unborn baby, Mina, was diagnosed at 17 weeks in-utero with spina bifida. Spina bifida is a neural tube defect affecting the spinal cord. The most common and most severe form of spina bifida, myelomeningocele, is characterized by the spinal cord protruding through an opening in the spinal column. This exposure of the spinal cord often puts the child at risk for paralysis and neural infections. Children born with this condition frequently exhibit ambulatory problems, loss of sensation, deformities of the hips, knees, or feet, and loss of muscle tone.

Parents Jeff and Tiffany traveled from their home in Charlotte to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and then to Duke Children’s Hospital to seek treatment for Mina. Mina means “love” in Old German, and when Mina was born, her parents were overwhelmed with love for their new baby daughter. Mina was immediately taken to the neonatal intensive care unit and examined by the neurosurgeons and other doctors. It wasn’t until 5 hours later that Mina’s parents were able to see her for the first time, and it was another day and half before they could hold her.

Fortunately, Mina’s diagnosis of myelomeningocele was modified to a less severe form of spina bifida. At ten days old, Mina displayed great mobility. The doctors are optimistic that Mina has the potential for a life with minimal complications.

With their main focus on their daughter, Jeff and Tiffany only thought so far as going to Duke for her delivery. They did not think about how long they would need to stay in Durham or where and when they would get their meals. The Ronald McDonald House lifted this burden and provided a home away from home when Tiffany and Jeff needed it most. They found hope and comfort in knowing that other families staying at the House were facing similar challenges. With their outlook broadened and their perspective changed as new parents, Jeff and Tiffany are eager raise awareness about the Spina Bifida Association of the Carolinas and the Ronald McDonald House of Durham.

Four-year-old Aliyana has been battling sickle-cell anemia her whole life, though you wouldn’t know it by the bright smile on her face above her charming princess outfit. Sickle cell disease is a genetic disorder that causes her blood cells to adopt an abnormal shape. During a sickle cell crisis, these cells block narrow blood vessels and restrict the flow of oxygen to her organs. Before treatment, Aliyana suffered from around four such crises a year, consumed by fever and pain that left her unable to walk. By the time she was two and a half, she had fought more medical battles than a typical adult, including a stroke on her left side that necessitated the use of a cane and walker.

Heroes can come in all shapes and sizes, and Ali’s savior is her twin brother Kenai. Kenai was a perfect match for the bone marrow transplant that allowed Ali’s body to start producing healthy red blood cells. After the transplant, “Both were just bursting with energy,” mother Renise said, pointing to the pair as they played tag behind us. “They know who is older, and who is taller.” Kenai trips and stumbles only to rise up laughing, much to his sister’s delight. The twins seem inseparable as they chase each other around the furniture, giving new significance to the phrase bonded by blood.

Even though Ali received a bone marrow transplant from her twin, there was still a possibility of her body rejecting it. In order to prevent such a reaction, she had to have her immune system wiped out with chemotherapy before transplantation. Ali’s condition is improving rapidly, but she still needs to be monitored carefully. To avoid the possibility of infection, she can only eat fresh food, peeled fruits and vegetables, and cannot dine out at restaurants. It’s only been a few months since she finished chemotherapy, and she must wear a mask to protect herself. In addition to being a mother and dealing with Ali’s medical needs, Renise home-schools the children to coordinate with Ali’s medical care. The family hails from Raleigh, and staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Durham has made it much easier for them to commute to the Duke University Medical Center.

The RMHD has four themes reflected on the walls decorated with children’s artwork: love, hope, courage, and belief. There is no better example than Aliyana and her family of the power of these words in the struggle against disease. Though small in stature, Aliyana has had the courage to overcome obstacles much bigger than her. The love of a caring mother and brother, along with the warm environment of RMHD, has supported her through the pain of the crises and endless rounds of treatment. Kenai’s gift of bone marrow gave her hope that she could lead a normal life despite her illness, and her story inspires us to believe in the power of family in combating disease.

Thanks to volunteers in the Duke Family Room and at Ronald McDonald House, his family had support when they needed it most.

For as long as his family can remember, Franklin has loved being outside. In fact, he dreams of one day working on a farm growing crops and raising exotic animals. Since his diagnosis of leukemia at the age of ten, however, Franklin has spent long periods of time indoors during lifesaving treatment.

During his initial chemotherapy, his family commuted every two weeks from their home in Lenoir to Duke Hospital. When his cancer relapsed, doctors determined that Franklin would need a bone marrow transplant. Unlike chemotherapy, this procedure requires daily clinical care –a necessity that seemed impossible given their long-distance commute. Thankfully, that’s when a hospital social worker connected the family to the Ronald McDonald House of Durham.

Franklin’s older brother, Ian, describes Ronald McDonald House as a ‘home away from home’ for their family during the treatment. “Not only has the close proximity of the House to the hospital relieved the cost of transportation, but the emotional support system from friends, volunteers, and staff have also made Franklin’s transport and recovery process that much smoother,” says Ian.

A bone marrow transplant involves replacing a defective immune system with a healthy, functional one. Considering that the risks of this procedure are numerous, the family is thankful that the operation didn’t have any major complications. Franklin’s sister Anna was his donor, and his speedy recovery has been the best that they could have hoped for.

Ian says that Franklin has “become a very strong kid.” Franklin possesses keen insight for his age and Ian jokes how his brother reminds him of “a wise old man.”

Despite Franklin’s wisdom beyond his years, he is still a kid at heart. In fact, during the celebration of his release from the bone marrow unit, Franklin targeted the nurses with silly string and confetti as he walked out the door.

Franklin’s release from the bone marrow unit at Duke after 41 days of confinement represented more than just the next step towards recovery. Instead, it meant that he could be back where he is happiest – outdoors.

The Goal of Going Home

Jessica and Rodney sit in the dining room of Ronald McDonald House of Durham, surrounded by three of their children. With their similar curly blond hair and light blue eyes, Jasmine, Serenity, and Rodney III are unmistakably siblings—Jasmine is five, Serenity is three, and Rodney III is six months. As both Rodney and Jessica feed the children surrounding them, they share the reason why they’re here at the House.

Meet Eddie James

Their fourth child, Eddie James, is three years old and is currently being treated at Duke Hospital for neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer involving the tissues and nerves of the nervous system. Rodney and Jessica first noticed his symptoms when Eddie stopped wanting to eat or play; when they examined him more closely, they realized that his eyes were tinged yellow. The physicians at Wilmington Hospital initially thought that it was a case of carotenemia, which results from ingesting too many carrots, but CAT scans confirmed that the lymph nodes in his stomach were swollen. Early February this year, Eddie was flown to Duke Hospital, where they found the tumor pressing on his stomach and causing his symptoms.

Since his diagnosis, Eddie has gone through three rounds of chemotherapy and will begin his fourth round in two weeks. Jessica has been staying with Eddie at all times while Rodney commutes on the weekends from their home in Johnsonville, North Carolina, with their other three children. The process has been difficult—the children are young and are at the stage where they do not fully understand the situation, but know that Eddie is very sick. Every time they leave the hospital, Serenity cries that she doesn’t want to leave her brother. Rodney recalls one heartbreaking time when he saw Jasmine kneeling by her bed and praying, “Dear God, please don’t let cancer kill my brother.” Eddie himself knows that he is sick, and refers to the cancer as the “monster in his belly” that doctors need to “get out.” It pains both parents to see that their children are conscious of what death even is at their age.

Eddie’s Room

Eddie has stayed at the hospital for nearly three months now. Since his arrival, he has charmed the nurses and doctors who see him. Eddie is remarkably mature and respectful; the nurses are always surprised and impressed when they find out that he is only three years old. Jessica states that the nurses, physicians, and pharmacists at Duke Hospital have been amazing to them; only earlier last week, the nurses helped Eddie make a sign declaring, “Eddie’s Room.” Eddie wants to go home and has promised his physicians, “If you let me go home, I promise I’ll come back.” Since then, the physicians have been working hard to get Eddie through the necessary rounds of chemotherapy so he can potentially go home for two weeks before returning for surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible.

A home away from home

Jessica and Rodney have found the RMHD to be wonderful with help as well as the facilities. For Jessica and Rodney, the staff members have been friendly, the food great, and the knowledge that they have a place to stay while Eddie undergoes treatment has been a great relief. They remain hopeful that the family they have made here at Duke and RMHD will allow Eddie to come home for a little while before his surgery, where their family can finally be together for the first time in a long time.

Written by: Jennifer Hong
Photograph by: Luch Yang

The Gosey Family

Hannah, Cassidy, mother Kim, and grandmother Marie

Sisters Hannah and Cassidy have celebrated many firsts at the Ronald McDonald House of Durham (RMHD). Hannah, now sixteen, took her first steps and ate her first solid foods at the house. Her fourteen-year-old sister, Cassidy ate her first Thanksgiving meal, opened her first Christmas presents, and rang in her first New Year at the house. It goes without saying that their mother Kim and her two daughters are no strangers to Duke University Medical Center (DUMC) and the RMHD.

Every six months, the family makes the three-hour drive from Portsmouth, Virginia, to Durham. They’ve been driving this route since Friday, December 13, 1996, when then six-month-old Hannah came to DUMC to seek treatment for Hurler’s syndrome, a rare and inherited disease that occurs in just one of every 100,000 births. People with Hurler’s syndrome lack an enzyme that enables cells to break down sugar molecules, which can lead to death.

Kim knew something was wrong with Hannah’s development when she failed to hit certain growth markers before she turned two years old. At that time, DUMC had only performed two umbilical cord blood transplants in children with Hurler’s syndrome. Hannah became the third. Soon after, Kim became pregnant with Cassidy and also learned her second daughter would also have Hurler’s syndrome.

Kim and her two beautiful daughters approach this hard and life-long struggle with a sense of ease and acceptance. Yes, they’re smaller than most girls their age and at times a little weaker, but really, Hannah and Cassidy are no different than their peers. Hannah is an avid reader and ardent Twilight fan and, like many Duke enthusiasts, her lifelong goal is to meet Coach K. Cassidy, on the other hand, is on the swim team, where she was voted “Most Inspirational” by her captains and lithely swims the “Cassidy-Style,” a mix of freestyle and breast stroke.

To Kim and her daughters, the RMHD is “Home – a place with more than just brick walls.” Be it impromptu chats during late-night kitchen raids or bingo during dinner, the family feels a comfort and security that no hospital room or hotel could provide. Because of this, they look back at all of their firsts with a sense of joy rather than sadness. Now the house even represents hope to families with Hurler’s syndrome thanks to Hannah and Cassidy, pioneer recipients of cord blood transplants at DUMC. Kim thanks the RMHD and their supporters for providing a support network and alleviating some of the worries that come with having sick children. Today, Hannah and Cassidy have even come to think of their trips to DUMC and the RMHD as a vacation, worrying more about whether the ice machine is working than their visits to the doctor.