One year ago, the Pasadena Ronald McDonald House bore witness to a miracle.
Actually, two miracles.
Mary Cox, who’d been a guest at the house, gave birth to twin boys after doctors initially gave one of her babies a less than 1% chance of survival in utero. Oliver and Elliot suffered from a rare disorder known as twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, in which one baby receives more blood flow and nutrients than the other, even more than it should.
Early on, doctors gave Cox the choice to terminate the pregnancy, or one baby to save the other, a choice that, as impossible as it seemed, still did not guarantee viability as the death of the first child could also trigger stroke in the second.
But Cox and her husband, Tom, had previously lost one child. And getting pregnant again had been so, so difficult.
“We were going to give it up to God and see what happened,” said Cox, who was referred early on to Dr. Ramen H. Chmait at Huntington Hospital, one of only a few specialists in the world who perform the high-risk surgery that was necessary to give the babies a chance to survive.
So the Coxes packed up their bags and left Bakersfield and their two dogs to come to Pasadena, where they landed at a hotel to await the surgery and where they planned to recover. After the in-utero laser surgery, they got the good news: It was a success, and both babies were doing well. But there was bad news too: At 26 weeks, Mary was dangerously close to going into labor. The doctor ordered strict bed rest — no travel, no stairs, no exertion of any kind.
They knew they had to stay as close to the hospital as possible, but their hotel was already too expensive, and for Mary to reach full term, they would need a place to stay for more than five months. Mary had just recently stopped working, and Tom, a tattoo artist, was going to have to work sporadically in the coming months.
By chance, another miraculous thing came along — a room had just opened at the Ronald McDonald House, a place so continuously booked that it had 116% occupancy in 2018. Since it is just across the street from Huntington Hospital, the Coxes couldn’t believe their good fortune.
“I just don’t know how we would have done it without the Ronald McDonald House, I truly don’t,” Mary said recently by phone, the babbling and cooing of her busy boys filling the background. “We loved all the people we shared the house with — they were all going through something pretty serious, but it normalized our situation for us a little bit.”
The Pasadena haven, a part of the larger Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern California, has served families like the Coxes and their children since 2004. Since then, more than 23,000 children and family members have stayed at the facility, which actually includes two homes on two separate lots. The mission to provide a home away from home for families coming to Pasadena who are seeking advanced medical treatment for their critically or terminally ill children has been fulfilled time and time again: Nearly 52% of the house’s families were returning families.
“Our goal is to keep families together while they are going through treatment; the stress of any medical ordeal for your child is already enormous, but by offering them a warm environment where they can be together helps reduce the extra burdens of how to do it,” said Elizabeth Dever, director of Pasadena Ronald McDonald House. “It helps the parents devote all their energy to caring for their child and family.”
The two houses at RMH really are just that — homes. The Craftsman-style bungalows were built on adjacent lots in 1910 and renovated in the 1990s. Their combined 9,000 square feet offer 12 bedrooms, eight bathrooms, two large kitchens, a family room, two fully stocked pantries, two laundry rooms, computers with internet access, a resource library and — the best part — a large backyard complete with dining tables, barbecue and playground.
On a recent sunny afternoon, bikes filled the rack outside, with tricycles also there for the taking. The living room was filled with chatter, and on the porch outside, a boy played the ukulele. There is often music at the house, Dever noted, gesturing toward the piano in a corner.
One year, she laughed, a boy was teaching himself to play, and “Oh my, was that painful,” although over the years he became quite the expert player, she added. Dever has seen a lot of children grow up over the years, as many come back for follow-up treatment.
“It’s amazing to see the kids grow,” said Dever, for whom it’s a passion to work with families.
Nearby, laughter and conversation in Spanish filled the living room, where Emmanuel Fuentes, 17, was visiting with his mom, Delia Carmen Cervantes, and another family and some staff members.
Fuentes and his mom have stayed at the house multiple times over the years, often when he undergoes surgery nearby or gets an improved fitting for his prosthetic leg. Most recently, he was recovering from a knee surgery. While he misses playing basketball — he is part of the national team for players with disabilities in Culiacan, Mexico — he has fun at the house, and is happy to have good internet access to complete his school course work, and play a few games, of course.
“We feel very comfortable here, almost as if it were our own home. … We’ve been coming and going for so many years, it really is like our other home,” said Cervantes, adding that she loves being able to do laundry when she needs to, and to cook in the large, open kitchen. “We love trying all the different food, but I like to cook, too.”
As in any large family, Cervantes noted, food is an important part of the house, and the others agreed, laughing. Guests hail from all over world, including many Latin and South American countries but also Italy, Mongolia, Nigeria and Poland. This contributes to an important, and sometimes humorous, sharing of cultures and cuisines.
One of the many volunteer programs at RMH includes “Meals of Love,” home-cooked meals that are delivered to the house — with cleanup included — several times a week, so when families return from the hospital they can simply enjoy each other’s company. Volunteers are the backbone of the RMH program, and assist with all aspects of the house including special events and programs as diverse as pet therapy with a dwarf pony. More than 9,900 volunteers have given their time over the past 15 years.
While staying at the house isn’t free — typically the nonprofit charges $25 per night —no family is ever turned away due to inability to pay, Dever noted. The cost to serve one family for one day is estimated at about $150.
This past year, RMH got some great news, and just in time to celebrate its 15-year anniversary: Caltrans officially killed the 710 Freeway tunnel through Pasadena and would give its renters the first option to buy the surrounding properties.
This will give the local organization the fuel it needs to expand and ensure its ability to help more families for many years to come, said RMH board co-chair Megan Foker.
“We are very excited, this is something we’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” Foker said. “We’ve needed to expand for a long time, and this news really allows us to plan for the future and to establish the way we’re going to be serving our families for the next 100 years.”
Foker noted the expansion will allow for building a more disabled-accessible facility, including ramps and possibly an elevator. The current houses, while quaint and cozy, are like many older homes with steep stairs and narrow hallways.
Families like the Coxes, however, say they’ll take the home, with all its quirks and inconveniences.
Mary Cox recalled remaining in her room upstairs for most of her four months, unable to risk the stairs. The other women in the house made sure she was never in need of anything, whether it was company, food or encouragement.
“We loved all the people we were at the house with. … The first night we had [King’s cake], and I bit into a piece of plastic,” she recalled. “I got the baby Jesus. All the women in the place started crying, saying, ‘You’re going to have a blessed year’ — it was just one of those signs we were where we belonged.
“And now here we are,” laughed Cox. “I’ve got my babies just bopping all over the place and being mischievous.”