A Ronald McDonald House Christmas
Four-year-old James Holland beamed when he heard the jingling of bells and boisterous “Ho, ho, ho!” heading down the staircase. He’d been waiting patiently for more than an hour to see Santa, and squirming slightly in his little wheelchair, he pointed to the top of his hat, which read, “Santa’s Helper.”
Holland, his mom and grand-aunt were staying at the Ronald McDonald House, where families with seriously ill children can live while facing long- to short-term hospital visits. It’s a home away from home, with private rooms, homecooked meals and playrooms for the children, for families who can’t afford a hotel or don’t have relatives who live close to Duke Hospital.
On Thursday, house staff and volunteers threw a holiday celebration. Santa and his elves with pointy shoes passed out candy canes and fleece blankets. Table after table was lined with cookies, tiny cheesecakes and chocolate pizza, and trays of lasagna and salad were uncovered in the kitchen. Children in masks came out of their rooms, grabbing pretzel sticks covered in sprinkles or listening to Christmas carols.
Jennifer Holland, James’ mother, said her son is no stranger to “5200,” the pediatrics floor of Duke Hospital. He has Pelizaeus-Merzbacher Disease, or PMD, which is a rare and progressive central nervous system disorder that affects coordination, motor abilities and intellectual function.
For a long time, James couldn’t walk. He could barely talk. Doctors told the family from Ferrum, Va., that there really was no cure for their boy. But when he received a stem cell transplant in December 2011, when they decorated his hospital room with Christmas cards and Christmas trees, they began to see results.
James can form full sentences now, and he walks with a walker. Now he just goes back to Duke Hospital once a year for a week of testing.
James smiled as Santa sat down next to him. What’s your favorite color? Santa asked. Elmo red. What do you want for Christmas? A daddy Mickey Mouse.
“Merry Christmas, young man,” Santa said before he left, grabbing James’ hand and squeezing it. “And don’t you worry. Wherever you are Christmas Eve, Santa will find you.”
James grinned, clutching his new red fleece blanket, covered in winter owls.
“You little ham biscuit,” Jennifer said, taking photos with her iPad. She said once they get home, she’s getting a head-start on wrapping Christmas presents.
“We couldn’t be happier,” she said. “He’s doing fabulous.”
In the kitchen, Hendersonville resident Bobby Davis stood waiting for dinner, with her granddaughter, 3-year-old Hailey, clutching her legs. Their stay at the Ronald McDonald House is brief. Her grandson, 17-month-old Alexander, just had surgery on his skull on Monday, due to the bone growing too close around his brain. They were waiting for the swelling to go down and his eyes to open.
“There was nothing I could do about it,” Davis said. “I’m the grandma, but there was nothing I could do to make it right.”
She said she was staying at the house while Alexander recovered with his dad in the hospital, and she couldn’t wait to see her grandson back to normal again.
“I feel like I’m at home,” she said of spending part of the holidays at the Ronald McDonald House. “Everyone seems to be family.”
Across the room, 2-year-old Odin Dougherty clapped his hands to Christmas carols, pausing to take bites from the cookies on his plate. Odin has Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a brain cancer where less than 10 percent of children who have it live longer than 18 months from diagnosis.
His family took him to get a brain scan after his right eye suddenly crossed, and they’ve stayed at the house since Halloween while he goes through radiation five times a week.
Erin, his mother, said Odin will run through the halls at the Ronald McDonald House, where everyone knows him now. They’ll put a train around their Christmas tree this year -- Odin’s a big fan of cars and trains. And they watch a “Toy Story” movie every morning before they head to the hospital for treatment. Living at the house has become a nice alternative to their Salisbury home.
“They can treat it, but they can’t cure it,” Erin said. “We just want to make every day as good as we can for him.”