Ronald McDonald House is a haven for families with sick children
ALBANY Jane Peltier of Schenectady is riding the wild rollercoaster of life.
On June 2, she married Dennis, the love of her life, and on July 6, she gave birth to Jayden, their beautiful baby boy.
But Jane’s life has also been unbelievably frightening.
In May, when she was five months pregnant, intense abdominal pain sent her to the hospital, where an ultrasound revealed that her liver was swollen and covered with lesions.
At age 26, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
Albany Medical Center has become her healing place, where she does chemotherapy while a team of medical experts care for her baby. Jayden is thriving, but he’s a preemie. When he was born by C-section at 28 weeks, he weighed one pound, 15 ounces.
Although they never imagined such a wedding, love was more important than location, and Jane and Dennis said “I do” in a conference room at Albany Med, under an arch of roses, while family and friends cheered them as they watched the big event in a live website simulcast.
Six months pregnant and too weak from chemo to stand for the ceremony, the bride reclined in a chair as the groom stood beside her. But Jane was every bit the bride, with a frothy veil, a long, lacy white gown, a bouquet of pink roses and four attendants in pink and lavender frocks.
Riding the rollercoaster with Jane, Dennis has spent countless hours at her bedside, heading to Albany from his job as maintenance worker in Schenectady. Without a car, he was riding the Central Avenue bus back and forth, three hours each day, to see her.
Then a nurse told the couple about Ronald McDonald House, a retreat for families with a child in medical crisis.
The big yellow Victorian on South Lake Avenue, only 2 1⁄2 blocks from Albany Med, became the Peltiers’ home away from home.
Dennis stayed there while visiting Jane and the baby.
When Jane was released from the hospital on July 15, but was still doing chemo, the couple lived at Ronald McDonald House together with 5-year-old Everett, Dennis’ son and Jane’s new stepson.
Jayden, who now weighs almost three pounds, needs to put on two more pounds before he can leave the hospital.
“It’s been wonderful,” Dennis, a friendly, outgoing guy, said of Ronald McDonald house. “They make you food every night, which is awesome.”
Riding the McDonald House shuttle, the couple can visit their baby whenever they want.
“Even during the night,” Dennis said.
“Want to see him? He’s tiny. He’s like a little doll,” Jane said, as she digs out her cell phone and clicks to a photo of an elfin child bundled in blue.
“I’m just so happy that I have him. I was worried I would lose him,” she said, her solemn face breaking into smile.
While everyone knows that Ronald McDonald House provides free lodging and meals to families with a sick child who must travel to hospitals far from their homes, many do not realize that more than a quarter of the families who use the Albany house are from the Capital Region.
In 2009, 400 families were guests at Albany’s RMH. About 40 families were distant travelers, from five countries and nine states beyond New York, while the rest hailed from 28 New York counties.
Ulster County topped the guest list, with 47 families, and Saratoga County was second, with 34 families. Also in the top 10 were Fulton County, with 20, and Montgomery, with 19.
“From Poughkeepsie to Warrensburg, Utica to Pittsfield. That’s Albany Med’s footprint and that’s our footprint,” said Jeffrey Yule, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Capital Region. “And the majority are newborn issues.”
Because there’s almost always a waiting list for the 16 private rooms, the general rule is that guests must live outside a 30-mile radius or 45 minutes away.
“Typically we do not accept families from Schenectady,” said Yule, “however the circumstances surrounding Dennis and Jane required that we make an exception.”
The average visit is eight nights.
And some Capital Region families hang out at the house but don’t stay overnight.
Three years ago, when Tanner Klingenberg of Ballston Spa was 6 years old, his baby sister Teagan was a cancer patient at Albany Med.
“Ronald House is really fun, and there’s a lot of stuff to do there. There’s a toy closet and a train,” said Tanner, now 9, as he sat with his arm around 5-year-old Teagan on a couch in the Klingenbergs’ home.
With her cancer in remission, Teagan is a healthy, lovable girl with perky pigtails who is excited about starting kindergarten next month.
But her parents, Holly and Juergen Klingenberg, will never forget the winter of 2007, when Teagan was 18 months old and had a sinus infection that wouldn’t go away.
Teagan has Down syndrome, and Holly remembered reading that children with Down had a slightly higher chance of developing leukemia. The doctor agreed to test the toddler, and she was diagnosed with AML leukemia.
Within 24 hours, Teagan was admitted to Albany Med, and life turned upside down for the couple, Tanner, and their oldest child, Tyler, who was then 9.
In and out of the hospital over nine months, Teagan received chemotherapy through a catheter in her chest, and was confined to a crib as a life-saving cocktail of powerful drugs slowly dripped into her tiny veins.
The Klingenbergs never slept at Ronald McDonald House, but it became their regular refuge.
When Juergen and the boys were visiting, the family ate dinner at RMH, where every night a different local group of volunteers brings in food and prepares a meal for 25 to 30 people.
When babysitters were watching the boys back in Ballston Spa, the Klingenbergs could spend time alone or connect with other parents at the house.
“It breaks the monotony, takes your mind off what’s going on,” said Juergen. “It’s like a support group, and people are in different phases.”
“You feel like you are helping them,” added Holly.
Gerard and Heather Wise of Wilton stayed at RMH for a week and a half last year, when their baby daughter Morgan was sick. They found that being able to talk with other parents was the most precious gift they received at the big yellow house.
“It was more than the food and a place to stay. The best thing was the people: the support from the people who work there and the people staying there,” Gerard said.
Child in distress
When Morgan was born at Saratoga Hospital on April 7, 2009, “she was a perfectly healthy baby,” Gerard said. But, within 24 hours, she was respiratory distress and transferred to Albany Med.
Diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, Morgan had heart surgery at six days old and spent 40 days in the hospital.
Now 16 months old, Morgan “is doing really great,” her Dad said, but she’s going to need more surgery, so the Wises might find themselves under Ronald’s roof again.
“If there’s an opening, we’ll look into it for sure,” he said.
Fashion show an annual fundraiser
The Ronald McDonald House in Albany is filled with awe-inspiring stories of hope and healing, and its work of comforting families in crisis goes on quietly every day, seven days a week.
However, every August, Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Capital Region moves into the spotlight during the annual Saratoga Fashion Show at the Saratoga Race Course, one of its two big yearly fund-raisers.
Ronald McDonald House Saratoga Fashion Show
WHEN: 11 a.m. Thursday
WHERE: Rail Pavilion, Saratoga Race Course, Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $150, reservations required.
MORE INFO: 438-2655 or www.RMHCofAlbany.org
Scheduled Thursday, the 12th annual event features Natalie Sillery and her posh Saratoga Trunk boutique. Sillery’s models, the Trunkettes, will sashay down the catwalk in clothing, hats and other accessories created by nearly two dozen top designers, include Don O’Neill, who dresses Carrie Underwood and other celebrities.
This year, for the first time, most of the committee members for the event, including Holly Klingenberg and Gerard and Heather Wise, are Saratoga County parents who have used Ronald McDonald House.
Several “Ronald McDonald kids,” including Klingenberg’s 5-year-old daughter Teagan, a leukemia survivor, will be parading in their own mini fashion show.
Leisha Arbogast of Middle Grove, committee co-chairman, has her own McDonald House story. Her 20-year-old son, Gennaro, was born with a heart defect that has required 11 surgeries over the years.
Gennaro’s last surgery was in May, but three months later, college is the only thing on his mind. On Aug. 10, he packed his bags and headed off to American University in Washington, D.C. to study sports broadcasting.
“The Ronald McDonald House is near and dear to me. I have spent over six months of my life there while Gennaro was in the hospital,” says Arbogast.
“It is a place that takes care of everyone in any kind of need, whether it is a car accident, a preemie, heart surgery, cancer, an accident at home, critical illness,” she adds. “All families of children are able to use the house. Staff and volunteers work fervently to not only care for the families in crisis at that moment, but to take care of them if they need it when they go home.”
Ronald McDonald Houses are not owned or operated by the McDonald’s restaurant company. The Albany House, which opened in 1982, is part of the non-profit Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Capital Region Inc., supported primarily through donations by private individuals plus funds collected in canisters at area McDonald’s franchises.