House is like an oasis for families

Published 2:14 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Coluumn: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

It’s tough for families when a child is in the hospital. I know. I’ve been there.

It’s tough to describe those days. Each and every day was different. Not only was my newborn son, Jasper, in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, my wife was in the hospital in Albert Lea. And when she was discharged, she came to Rochester, experienced a spinal headache and was admitted to Rochester Methodist Hospital.

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Jasper was in the NICU for having underdeveloped lungs and having too much magnesium sulfate from his mother’s medication in his system. He was born prematurely last August and didn’t breathe very well at birth. Medically speaking, breathing is rather important.

For a while there, I had a wife in one hospital and a son in another and our other son, 5-year-old Forrest, with me nearly at all times. He and I were milkmen. We shuttled breast milk from Mommy’s hospital to Jasper’s hospital.

Since the second day in Rochester, I had been staying at the Fiksdal Motel across the street from St. Marys Hospital. The first night, I actually stayed in a room right there at the hospital. And since the second day, we were on a waiting list to check into the Ronald McDonald House. A social worker with Mayo Clinic let me know we qualified.

It took four days for a room to open up at the Ronald McDonald House. Fortunately, Lisa was discharged by that day, and the three of us stayed at the home. We were facing mounting medical bills — you won’t believe the cost of the helicopter and the insurance hassles that entails — so it was a relief we wouldn’t have anymore lodging expenses.

Thank you, Ronald McDonald House.

We ended up staying five more nights. Let me tell why it was much better than a hotel.

Hotels don’t offer much in the way of the comforts of home. When you stay a hotel, it’s hard to keep groceries in the little fridge. The only kitchen convenience you have is a microwave oven. The bathrooms are cramped. But you are living in this space long term, and someone comes into your space every day to clean the room, which starts to seem annoying, rather than convenient, because they move your stuff.

The Ronald McDonald House provides spacious communal kitchens with all the necessary appliances and utensils. We could actually fix a meal and dine as a family, or at least part of a family.

The bathrooms are big. Our room had two beds, like a hotel room, but there was room to move, like a room at home. There was a comfy chair and a desk. A computer doubled as a TV set. Down the hall, there was a laundry room.

The rooms are on the second and third floors. The first floor has offices, a meeting room, a gift shop, a lobby and a dining room, where on some nights local church groups would make meals for the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House. I recall a yummy spaghetti dinner one night. The first floor also has a game room, which Forrest enjoyed. He and I found a little time to play “Mario Kart” on the Nintendo Wii with another boy, who soon discovered how good we were at the game and didn’t want to play anymore.

Little conveniences like these help normalize the hard time for Forrest, who behaved wonderfully throughout the experience. What a kid.

Basically, Jasper and I lived in Rochester for 11 days, and Lisa and Forrest lived there for eight days. We absolutely didn’t want to stay any longer. We were sick and tired of the cold and inconvenient hospital life, but the Ronald McDonald House was the next best thing to actually being at home. That’s because it had the feeling and warmth of a home.

It sure must be something even more of an oasis for those families who end up staying weeks or months there. There were many stories of other families much more fretful and dire than ours. The families grow close and give each other support during hard times, even though they may be total strangers. And then they might not ever see each other again.

By the way, Jasper is doing fine these days, like any normal baby.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column, Pothole Prairie, can be read on Tuesdays.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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