I’ve eaten at McDonald’s on many occasions in my life. If you’re reading this, I’d bet it’s likely you have too at some point. Many times now, I’ve passed by the spare change donation jar inside the stores (and drive thrus), that say something like “change a child’s life” on them. I had heard of the Ronald McDonald House, but until November 12, 2017, I had little idea what exactly it did, or for who. That’s why I want to share my story for you. I know there are tons of quality causes that deserve attention, but for me, I’ll forever feel indebted to what the Ronald McDonald House did for my wife, Tiff, and I during one of the most tiring, stressful times of our lives.

My story begins about 2am on Saturday, November 11, 2017. Tiff leaned over to me in bed, and whispered, “I think it’s happening. I’m pretty sure I’m in labor.” This being our first child, we probably did it wrong. By “it,” I mean, not going back to sleep and staying asleep as long as possible. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely got a little sleep that night, but not more than a couple hours tops. The excitement and anticipation of what was to come — finally meeting our perfect little girl, getting to hold her and snuggle her — was enough to make substantial sleep a non-reality. “Sweet,” I thought to myself. “We’ll have this baby by Saturday night, be home to bed, and I’ll be able to wake up Sunday morning laying in bed watching the Vikings play the Redskins, while my cute little peanut gives daddy snuggles all afternoon long getting indoctrinated to the NFL at the ripe old age of 12 hours,” was how I had envisioned it going.

Fast forward to 4:20am, Sunday morning — over 24 hours after this whirlwind of a process had begun, our baby girl, Mae, was finally born. Mom, drained and exhausted. Dad, drained and exhausted. But both exuberant and riding the highs of the adrenaline, everything was going smoothly and all the vitals and whatnot for our baby were checking out perfect. It’s all a blur to me now, but what I remember is around 9am that day, Mae was resting on my chest and the nurses just wanted to check a few more things with her, then if we wanted, we could think about getting ready to take her back to our house (we did our birth at a birth center that sends you home 4-6 hours after birth if mom and baby are healthy). The little vision of my Sunday was shaping up beautifully — home just in time for a quick nap, then the Vikings — until it wasn’t.

In this last exam, the nurse had noticed our baby’s respiration level was ticking up from earlier, and starting to approach a not “normal” level (normal for a baby is 50-60 respiration per minute). She said, “at this point, it’s nothing to worry about. But we should probably keep you guys here a bit longer for observation and hopefully see her breathing return to normal.” So we waited. But the improvement never came, and I can still vividly recall how violently Mae’s tiny little lungs were gyrating in and out, in and out, more rapidly and violently than you would think a little 6lb 14oz human could possibly do. And then grunts in her breaths. They made the decision we needed to get referred to Children’s Hospital, as Mae’s breathing was now over 100 respirations per minute…. But not only referred, taken there by ambulance. Yup, my 7 hour old baby got to do something that to this day her father still has never done: ridden in an ambulance. Tiff and she rode in it to Children’s, while I drove our car behind it for the 5 minute commute from our birth center to the Saint Paul Children’s Hospital. We were reassured at this point it was still considered a “non-emergent transfer,” meaning the ambulance wasn’t using its sirens, and stopped at signs/lights.

When I got inside to Children’s Hospital reception, Mae had already been hauled away, and I met up with Tiff and a few staff as we waited to get taken to our daughter. After a brief (but feeling like forever) couple of minutes, we were told we could get taken to Mae’s room in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). When we got up there, I was not prepared for what I was about to see: roughly 8 people all hurriedly moving around her doing this and that, with her hooked up to who knows how many different IVs and a c-pap machine.

“This doesn’t feel non-emergent to me,” we both said to each other.  So helpless, looking like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, this was not how our first day with our Mae Mae was supposed to be going.  The hours ticked by, as we sat restlessly in the tiny NICU room, awaiting good news and the word that this was all just a quick glitch and everything was fine now and we could go home.  By about 5pm on Sunday, we were told Mae would have to stay at the NICU for at least 48 hours, as that was the earliest they’d have blood-work results.

So this is where the Ronald McDonald House comes in…  If you have never been in a NICU room — consider yourself lucky — but let’s just say the rooms are not designed for people to comfortably spend a night sleeping in them.  They are tiny, filled with medical equipment, and have a small, rock hard futon that can barely fit one person across it, along with a rocking chair.  It could be possible for 2 people to sleep in the room, but, doing so would be miserable.  Especially when you happen to have basically been awake for 36-48 hours straight.  This on top of the fact that there are no real doors on the NICU rooms (just curtains) and there are other babies, sometimes crying, all around your room.

Neither Tiff nor I wanted to leave the hospital to go home to sleep.  This was our baby, gosh darn it, we waited 9 months to meet her, we were not going to leave the hospital and be miles from her when who knows what may or may not happen with her health overnight.  The only option that existed outside of spending the night in the NICU room was seeing if the Ronald McDonald House on level 3 had any rooms available that night.  I marched upstairs one level, only to hear the crushing news: all the rooms were currently claimed, but we could go on a waiting list and we’d be notified if anyone cancelled their room.  This news was a death blow to both our psyches.  We were both despondently exhausted beyond belief, and it had felt like this nightmare was never going to end.  Luck was on our side however, as about 7:30 pm that night my phone rang, and it was the receptionist from the Ronald McDonald House telling me that one of the rooms had opened up and we could claim it if we wanted to.

I have never slept better than my first night in the Ronald McDonald House room, and I’m pretty Tiff would say the same.  We both passed out over 10 hours straight (Tiff, after all, had just been in labor over 24 hours and then awake another 18 hours straight after that), thankful to receive no phone calls from any nurse during our much, much needed sleep.  The next night we were given our same room too.  The RMH staff was awesome and accommodating.  The kitchen had free food and snacks stocked in it along with free beverages and sodas to take.  There was a living room style lounge with comfortable couches and a fireplace, they had laundry machines and provide you detergent — this little place that 24 hours earlier I knew only a little about was suddenly my emotional saving grace.  Oh, and all of it was provided free of any cost which is pretty unreal.

I know there are families — lots of them — who have had it way worse than we did.  I know we got off lucky that we only had to spend 2 days in the NICU before finally getting discharged.  I’m not trying to tell my story to elicit any sympathy points or pity. But what I also know is that without there being a Ronald McDonald House inside Children’s Hospital, we would’ve come close to reaching our wit’s end.  Being able to sneak off to my Ronald McDonald House room for a shower where I could simultaneously be calmed by the hot water, while weeping uncontrollable and out of the world’s sight was a priceless respite.  Getting actual, comfortable sleep after being awake for close to 2 days straight was a godsend that I can never fully repay them for.  But that’s why I want to tell this story, and with so much detail.  If I can help raise just an ounce of awareness about what the Ronald McDonald House does — because I myself was once one of those people who knew it existed, kind of had a vague idea about what the Ronald McDonald House was about, but didn’t really “know” for sure — then I can feel satisfied that hopefully my reach will give back in some small way to help repay how indebted I feel.  I know with a lot of things, until you experience that certain specific thing firsthand, it’s sometimes not easy to be aware of that specific thing’s significance.

Since being discharged from the NICU in November, Mae has been one happy, healthy, smiley and strong baby — they still aren’t positive what caused her breathing woes, but think it’s likely there was just a fluid buildup in her lungs that needed some extra time to work itself out.  Her breathing did end up stabilizing by late Sunday evening of the day she was born.