On May 18, Kathy LeDuc, of Kalispell, took her daughter, Gabby, 5, to the doctor.
“She had a fever and said her tummy hurt,” LeDuc said. “She had a dance recital coming up and I thought she was coming down with strep throat.”
She never made the recital.
Gabby’s appointment was at 10:30 a.m. By 4 p.m. she’d been admitted to Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, and life forever changed for the LeDuc family.
“The doctor told us Gabby had leukemia,” LeDuc said. “Her white counts were so low they told us we needed to get on a Life Flight to Sacred Heart.”
With nothing but the clothes on her back, LeDuc entered a world of blood tests, IVs, transfusions and treatments. And far from her husband, family and friends, she found a new home at Ronald McDonald House.
For 25 years, Ronald McDonald House Spokane has offered a refuge to weary families whose children have been admitted to area hospitals.
“We’ve got 21 families staying here right now,” said executive director Mike Forness. “The only criteria are that families must live 40 miles or 40 minutes away.”
And there’s a waiting list – always. “We have 10 to 15 families waiting,” Forness said. “We operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.”
LeDuc feels fortunate that she was able to get a room. “Ronald McDonald House means security for me and my daughter,” LeDuc said. “She feels like she has no control over anything, but at least she has a familiar place to stay.”
A little boy named Chris West served as the inspiration for the creation of the Spokane house. “He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at age 10,” said his mother, Carol West. “We spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital. We were fortunate enough to be able to go to our own home each night, but we saw many people in the waiting room all night.”
Chris lost his battle with cancer in 1976. “He lived more in 11 years than most people live in 65 years,” his mother said.
Her son’s illness had opened her eyes to the need for a Ronald McDonald House in Spokane. She formed a committee and enlisted the fundraising help of her husband, Pat.
In 1987, the 98th Ronald McDonald House, featuring 14 fully furnished rooms, opened its doors across the street from Shriners Hospital for Children.
Pat West said, “It opened with no debt at all.”
The community had responded to the need. Businesses and individuals gave generously. And the level of dedication the project inspired is evident in the commitment of its board members. “Fourteen families have had two generations serve on our board,” Forness said. “One family has had three generations serve.”
He walked through the spacious halls of the house, pointing out the features that make it much more than just a place to stay. Several comfortably furnished common rooms feature televisions and play areas. Forness said, “There are no TVs in the guest rooms because we don’t want to encourage isolation. Everyone staying here is going through the same thing. Sharing their experience is probably one of the most precious things we can offer them.”
LeDuc agreed. “I like to talk,” she said. “So it’s a great community of other parents to talk to.”
The largest room of the house features four fully stocked individual kitchens and one common dining room. “Five families are assigned per kitchen,” said Forness. “We provide all the food except dairy and meat. Three times a week different businesses or community groups come and cook meals for everyone.”
It’s these touches of home that mean the most to families like the LeDucs. “I can fix meals for my daughter and try to get things back to normal,” said LeDuc.
Much has changed in 25 years. “In 2000, we expanded to 21 guest rooms,” Forness said.
And in 2007, the organization raised enough funds to buy and demolish an apartment house next door that was a haven for drug-users. Forness said, “We had to pick up needles from the playground before we could let the kids out.”
A healing garden occupies the spot where the unsightly building once stood. Forness notes that only $5,000 of the $150,000 project budget came from the Ronald McDonald House budget. “The community did their part,” he said. The Wests are pleased with the program’s success. “It thrills us to see how it’s living on and serving a purpose,” Carol West said. “Unfortunately, I’m sorry there’s still a purpose for it.”
Indeed, Forness said 60 percent of families that stay at the house have premature infants or infants with complications following birth. Another 30 percent have kids with cancer and 10 percent have kids with trauma or other issues.
For these families Ronald McDonald House becomes a home away from home – and hospital. “We never call it a hotel because staying here opens their eyes,” said Forness “They bond, they share, they help each other out.”
Though Pat and Carol West lost their son, their vision and the vision of many in the community who worked with them to see the house built seems a fitting legacy for Chris.
Pat West said, “It’s really a story about the goodness of people in Spokane in wanting to help children.”