Helping patients’ families feel at home over holidays

Sam Bredlau and volunteer Steve Beisler set out pillows under the tree in the great room at Ronald McDonald House. The pillows are gifts for families staying over the holidays.

Sam Bredlau and volunteer Steve Beisler set out pillows under the tree in the great room at Ronald McDonald House. The pillows are gifts for families staying over the holidays. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Laura Bliss has been at her Pella home twice since her son, Ethan, was born Aug. 26—once after being released from the hospital after having given birth and once earlier this month “just to rest.” Each trip was for just a day.

For now, her home is the Ronald McDonald House of Iowa City, a 31-room residential facility for families whose children are receiving critical medical care at University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. She plans to stay until she can take her son home—something doctors say most likely won’t happen at least until Ethan’s first birthday. Her husband, Chris, comes when he can, a few times during the week and on weekends.

Though it’s not how she envisioned spending her first Christmas with her son and husband, she says staying at the Ronald McDonald House has made the situation more bearable.

“It’s like home when you walk in,” she says. “It may even be better than home some days—my husband works five days a week, all week, and if I was home I’d be there alone worrying about Ethan.”

Sam Bredlau is the family services coordinator at Ronald McDonald House of Iowa City. She says volunteers and staff members work hard to make the house feel like home for its guests, particularly through the holidays.

“A lot of the families we have may not be here on Christmas Day, but they’re spending the holiday season with us, which means there are a lot of things they aren’t getting to do for themselves,” Bredlau says.

Volunteer groups started coming in the weekend after Thanksgiving to get the house ready for the holidays. One group came in and decorated the trees and the house, and “wrapped” each guest room door to make it look like a gift. Holiday treats arrive almost daily, and some groups bring undecorated cookies and plan activities for the children staying at the house to help frost them or make holiday decorations.

Lindsey Willey is a member of one of those volunteer groups. Each year, Medical Partners—a group made up of about 50 spouses of UI medical residents—dedicates some time to make the holidays a bit more comfortable for guests at the Ronald McDonald House.

“We have some people donate toys, some donate baked goods, and some come with us to spend time with the families,” Willey says. “This year we did infant blankets for the babies, toys and clothing that were donated for the rest of the family, and everything was wrapped and ready to go for Christmas.”

“I have my own little Ronald McDonald family. The volunteers and staff are wonderful, and it helps knowing other guests are going through what we are. This has really become a second home.”

—Laura Bliss

The first weekend of December, several members of the group brought in undecorated sugar cookies and other holiday baked goods, then spent the afternoon with kids staying at the house, helping them decorate cookies and talking about the holidays.

“It was a lot of fun—we really enjoyed it and I think the families did, too,” she says.

More groups come in to prepare meals for the families all through December. Although there are individual kitchens for families to use, Bredlau says, the group meals give families a chance to come “home” after a long day at the hospital and not have to worry about cooking.

The group meal also gives guests a chance to spend some time together and get to know one another better. Bredlau says families staying at the Ronald McDonald House often develop a closeness to one another because they share a common bond.

“If they’re staying at a local hotel, they’re seeing people come and go without much or any interaction,” she says. “Here, they know that everyone else who is staying here is doing so because they have a child in the hospital. They can and do support each other.”

Bliss says those other guests have made her stay easier.

“I have my own little Ronald McDonald family,” she says. “The volunteers and staff are wonderful, and it helps knowing other guests are going through what we are. This has really become a second home.”