McDonald Houses full, expanding for more parents 

Across the street from Albany Medical Center Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House is growing again, adding a third residence to accommodate more parents who need to stay near premature babies and children being treated for cancer and other diseases.

Sitting in a window seat of the large, Victorian-style main McDonald House in Albany last week, Chris Foley cradled his 4-month-old son Chase. Foley, 38, a disabled, retired Army veteran, had one of the 16 free bedrooms in the two adjoining houses.

"If it wasn't here, I couldn't afford it," Foley said. "We'd probably be sleeping in our car or something."

For ill children and siblings there are playrooms at the house; for the adults, the therapy of other parents in deeply trying circumstances; and for both, around-the-clock staff and many volunteer caretakers.

The growth here mirrors the trend worldwide — with many Ronald McDonald Houses filling each night and having waiting lists — so programs are expected to grow almost 30 percent over the next four years. As children are diagnosed earlier, treatments and survival rates improve, more hospitals expand and the need grows for houses like this one.

The international nonprofit Ronald McDonald House Charities has 313 Ronald McDonald Houses in 31 countries, including 175 in the U.S., plus 176 Ronald McDonald Family Rooms in 19 countries and 44 Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles in eight countries. Spokeswoman Clara Carrier said the organization and local chapters plan to grow 29 percent by the end of 2015 by adding 46 houses, 68 family rooms and 14 more mobile clinics in response to health care trends and demand.

The Albany nonprofit started with eight bedrooms in 1982 and by the time the expansion is done, will have 26. Unlike some other McDonald houses, it doesn't take Medicaid or other government money, doesn't ask families for donations and raises most of its funds from small donors. It has logged 17,000 visits from 16,000 families in 30 years, with some visits stretching for months, said house manager Debbie Ross. Six full-time staff and scores of volunteers, from students to retirees, feed the families.

Its expansion largely tracks the 651-bed hospital next door that draws many of its patients from 28 upstate New York counties and parts of Massachusetts and Vermont.

"Most of the things that we have, whether it be trauma or kids with heart surgery or premature babies or kids that have kidney failure, it's the same illnesses that I've been dealing with for 30 years here. It's just that there seems to be more of it," said Ross.

And cancer patients are showing up younger, she added. Once, they came at 3 or 4 years of age; now they come as babies.

Yule said the Albany house probably has fewer dire outcomes than others since many of the guest families have premature babies who grow and go home.

But each death hurts terribly, Ross said. A teenager injured in a car accident and a 3-year-old who had learned her first words and taken her first steps at the house died over the Christmas holiday. Still, she said, "We have more miracles than losses."

When Chase began to fuss, Ross carried off the pale, plump-cheeked infant in monkey-themed feet pajamas. Ross brought him back 15 minutes later, asleep.

The Foleys will be there for months for chemotherapy to keep Chase's leukemia in remission. There will be many nights in the hospital, in relative isolation to prevent infections, with Foley or his wife Elizabeth sleeping in the hospital room, the other at McDonald House with their 3-year-old daughter Peyton.

They couldn't afford $130-a-night hotel rooms nearby, and the three-hour drive from their home in Lowville is too far; Chase must go quickly to the emergency room if his temperature spikes.

The Albany charity also operates the Ronald McDonald Family Room in the hospital, where families can spend their days. It has four bedrooms that are always full with parents of the most critically ill children, Ross said.

With waiting lists for the houses that ranged from one family last week to 10 or 12 last summer, the charity bought another house next to the first two and has started raising $2 million to pay off the mortgage, restore and connect it to the others and open 10 more bedrooms.

Dr. Vikramjit Kanwar, who heads the hospital's pediatric oncology division, said there is no clear evidence of any significant increase in childhood cancer over the last 30 years. He explained that medical advances have meant more children getting care for a longer period.

"What we are seeing, certainly, is we are diagnosing younger children sooner, and children who might otherwise not have survived are coming in for treatment and are able to achieve long-term cure and certainly withstand treatment they receive," he said.

"The overall survival has increased dramatically over the last 25 to 30 years," Kanwar said. Childhood leukemia patients in the 1970s and early 1980s had overall survival rates around 60 or 65 percent; it's now more than 80 percent, he said.

In Philadelphia, where the first house opened in 1974, a second residence was added in 2008 and there's still a daily waiting list, said spokesman Chris Callanan. "Sixty-three families stay with us. We're full every night of the year."

Jeff Yule, executive director of McDonald House Charities of the Capital Region Inc., said the second Albany house was bought in 1988; occupancy has risen from about 70 percent through 2004 to 90 percent the last two years. The hospital has expanded units for pediatrics and neonatal intensive care and the need for women with high-risk pregnancies to stay near the hospital.

Families must live at least 45 minutes away to be eligible to stay here, though there are exceptions, Yule and Ross said, noting some families have children at other Albany hospitals. The other general rule is that residents must have a child or family member in pediatric care, usually up to age 21.

Operating on a $1.2 million annual budget, the local charity has seen the average donation decline during the national economic downturn, Yule said, but the total of donations has increased. Tough times can also drive up use at the houses.

"In terms of the people who come here, anecdotally we're seeing probably more people of more wealth choosing to stay here just because times are tough," he said.

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