Home comfort helps healing

Parents of hospitalised children can benefit from ‘home-away-from-home’ accommodation provided by Ronald McDonald House Charities. The free accommodation, available at children’s hospitals across the UK, helps to maintain family life while supporting a sick child.

When Jon Haward had been in his current job as director of Ronald McDonald House Charities just a few months, he heard from the family of a baby girl who had been born with serious internal problems and who had been rushed to London for treatment.

The infant’s parents, who also had a young son, were from Norwich and had never before been to the capital.

‘At first they managed to find a hotel and get buses to King’s College Hospital, where the baby was being treated,’ Mr Haward says. ‘But it was stressful for them at an already enormously difficult time. Then we got them accommodation at the Ronald McDonald House at the hospital.

‘The baby only lived for 13/14 days, and the family wanted to thank us for giving them the time and the opportunity to get to know their daughter before she died. When I heard about their story – and once I had stopped crying – I had a light bulb moment: this summed up why we do what we do.’

Ronald McDonald House Charities provides free ‘home-away-from-home’ accommodation at specialist children’s hospitals in the UK, allowing parents to stay close to their child and to maintain a degree of normal family life.

There are 14 Ronald McDonald Houses in the UK (with three others in the pipeline), helping around 6,000 families a year. They make a huge difference according to Michelle McLoughlin, chief nurse at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, which has a Ronald McDonald House. ‘It’s important for children and young people in hospital to have their families near,’ she says. ‘Supporting the family means that the sick child is supported.

Inside Ronald McDonald House at Birmingham Children’s Hospital

‘Like most children’s hospitals, we have facilities for parents to be by the bedside, or across the corridor, as well as shower facilities and so on. But the Ronald McDonald House is about more than accommodation.

‘It is also a place where families can be together. There’s a kitchen, so that if brothers and sisters come at the weekend they can even have a Sunday lunch if they want.’

Nurses are involved both in assessing which families would benefit most from a place in the house – factors include how sick the child is and the distance parents have to travel – and in reassuring patients that they will be contacted immediately their child needs them.

‘As nurses, we try to look out for the family,’ says Ms McLoughlin. ‘It’s not a good thing if mum is flagging. Children pick up on it. It’s also important to remember that the hard work starts for parents when children go home from hospital. Children don’t walk out of hospital fully recovered; they go home to recover, so parents need to be resilient.’

Nurses work hard to build a relationship of trust with parents, she adds. ‘The nurse should be able to say “you look tired – go over to Ronald McDonald and have a shower, and a few hours’ sleep, and if anything happens we will ring you immediately”. Parents have to trust that we’ll ring them.’

She would like to see similar levels of support made available for families of all patients, not just children.

Mr Haward points to a study supported by the charity, and published in April in Medical Care Research and Review, showing that families of hospitalised children who stayed at a Ronald McDonald House reported a more positive hospital experience than those who stayed in other accommodation types, such as the child’s hospital room or even at home. The study was based on almost 5,500 responses and was led by Linda Franck, then chair of children’s nursing research at University College London Institute of Child Health.

Quality of life

The study showed that families felt more involved in their child’s care. Families also said that the accommodation helped them to cope with trauma and have a better quality of life than they had anticipated, including better sleep.

Dr Franck, who has since moved to become chair of the department of family healthcare nursing at the University of California, said: ‘Our findings suggest that providing supportive family accommodation is an important facility that should be available to all families with a child undergoing treatment in specialist children’s hospitals across the UK.’

The study backed up what Mr Haward felt instinctively. ‘There’s a real need for this kind of accommodation, and I’d hope that where it isn’t already in place, nurses would lobby their chief executives to make it happen,’ he says.

‘This research shows that keeping families together, and keeping them strong for their sick child, is good for the child and good for the family too’.

‘We had a sense of some sort of normality’

In September 2011, Stacey Bisson’s daughter Honey (pictured right, and with mum, left) was born with a condition that meant she needed almost immediate heart surgery at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

Living more than an hour’s drive away, and with three other children under the age of ten, Ms Bisson and her husband Daniel didn’t know how they would cope.

Then the cardiac liaison nurse told them about Ronald McDonald House. Ms Bisson stayed there for three weeks, and her husband and other children (Courtney, Charlie and Phoebe) came at weekends. ‘It gave us a sense of some sort of normality and meant we could be together as a family and the older children could meet their sister properly,’ says Ms Bisson. ‘It didn’t feel like they were going to hospital, and we were only five minutes away.’

As Honey got stronger, she was able to spend some time with her family at Ronald McDonald House. ‘I got to feel like her mum. I could bond with her, and we could all sit round together and watch the TV. It really helped us to realise that we were still a family.’

Today, Honey is a thriving and healthy three year old – and she isn’t even the baby of the family any more. That honour goes to Elijah, who was born at the end of last year.

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