@story LAURA KEEP
@images ST EDWARD MERCY
Melody Howe knew her life was about to change. After all, the mom-to-be from Ozark was expecting triplets! What she didn’t know was that they would be born at twenty-nine weeks, weighing less than three pounds each and needing machines to help them breathe.
Autumn, Brylee and Callie were fighters from day one, but it would take nearly three months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Edward Mercy before they were all ready to go home.
During that time, the Howes made the hour-and-a-half drive from their home outside Ozark to Fort Smith more times than they care to count. Many times they would stay with the girls in the NICU until midnight, drive home to catch a few hours of sleep, then head back to the hospital by six the next morning. “It was really hard to leave them and I was up all night worrying about them,” said Melody, “It would have been a tremendous blessing to have a place to stay nearby.”
Soon parents of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit will be blessed. The Ronald McDonald Family Room at St. Edward Mercy is set to open this fall. The room will give moms and dads a place to go during the day to eat, take a nap, shower, do laundry and use the internet. For parents who live more than thirty miles away, there are four overnight sleeping rooms available. The room will be located inside the medical center, just one floor above the NICU, giving parents the comfort of being just a heartbeat away from their infants. “The parents have to be able to bond with their babies,” said Dr. Victor Coloso, neonatal intensivist, “we have to maintain the unity of the family. This room will allow us to do that.”
The Family Room at St. Edward Mercy will be the first in the state of Arkansas. There are only eighty in the U.S., with just six set to open in 2010. Getting approval for the new room took about 18 months. “Bringing the Ronald McDonald House Charities to Fort Smith has been a major goal over the past few years and we are very excited to see it come to life,” said Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma Board Member Michael Hadley, “We feel fortunate to be able to provide a place of refuge with the comforts of home to families with sick children.”
The charity will spend about $150,000 renovating the space. Once complete, it won’t feel like part of a hospital at all. “My concept for the Family Room design is the healing powers of nature,” said Joshua Jones, interior designer, “Scientific research has found that viewing and experiencing nature, or even artwork portraying natural environments, significantly improves one’s health including boosting mood and behavior and lowering stress levels. The design of the living space will not just include nature portraits, but will also incorporate the use of organic textures like stone and wood, healthy green-friendly, low VOC materials, and the soothing sounds of running water.”
The Family Room will be staffed by one-full time manager and four part-time associates. In addition, they will be looking for volunteers to work in the room as well as donations for the food pantry. Food items should be ones that are easy to prepare- single serving, microwaveable, grab and go type foods. Home cooked meals will also be provided through meal group volunteers. “We look at this as a real opportunity for the community to work together to take care of families in crisis, which will in turn improve the health and well-being of their child,” said RMHC Executive Director Stephanie Medford, “Although McDonald’s is the largest corporate donor to Ronald McDonald House Charities, no one company can solely fund our programs and the projected growth of those programs. We need the support of the entire community and greatly value any investment, whether it’s through cash donations, your time as a volunteer or fundraising efforts.”
There are certainly lots of families to help. Each year, more than 1000 babies are admitted to the level three NICU at St. Edward Mercy. Many of them will be there as long as sixty-to-ninety days with their family by their side waiting for the precious newborns to grow and mature. “As a medical center, we are always striving to find ways to make not only our patients but their families more comfortable,” said Jeff Johnston, CEO of St. Edward Mercy, “The Ronald McDonald Family Room will allow us to bring a little bit of peace to families in an extremely stressful situation.”
Melody Howe knows from experience that anything to ease these parents’ stress will be welcome, “I certainly hope I’m never in that position again, but I’m grateful other families that are will have a place to go.” And at least for a little while, a place like home.
If you are interested in starting a meal group, donating wish list items or just helping out at the Ronald McDonald Family Room, please contact Julie@rmhcofarkoma.org.