Room to Grow 

McDonald house makes Missoula a safe haven for babies

Hailey Mitchell is a big girl now. At almost 11 weeks old, she weighs in at 2 pounds, 4 ounces—almost double her 1-pound, 4-ounce birth weight. Although all of her life has been spent in Community Medical Center’s pediatrics intensive care unit so far, in another few weeks she’ll be able to go home to Turah with her mom and dad, Robert and Michele, and her big sister Brianna.

The Mitchells are fortunate. When problems developed in her 23rd week of pregnancy, Michele was close enough to the hospital to reach it quickly. She was in the hospital for a week before Hailey insisted on arriving almost three months early on Feb. 1. But that extra week doubled Hailey’s chances for survival, according to her doctor.

Michele has family living in Missoula, so spending time at the hospital with Hailey and in a home setting with Brianna has been easier for her than for many other families.

“I’ve been here for almost three months every day,” Michele says, “and I’ve seen how hard it is for families who live outside Missoula. They have no place to stay and no one to help.”

But that’s about to change. Community Medical Center has donated land on the hospital grounds for a Ronald McDonald House, and the project has received its charter for the Missoula Millennium Ronald McDonald House.

The project has been two years in the planning stages and may take another two years to be completed, but it has been a goal of the hospital’s neonatal team since it was first formed.

Dr. Jeff Montgomery and Dr. Jan Hiller form the nucleus of Community’s neonatal team. Montgomery treats women with problem pregnancies, and Hiller specializes in care of the babies after they are born. Montgomery has worked at other hospitals where Ronald McDonald Houses were available, and he believes such a facility is essential.

“One of the main stresses on the patients is separation from family,” Montgomery says. “And finances are closely tied to that. Often women with high-risk pregnancies need to be within five minutes of the hospital but they live hundreds of miles away. The only option right now is a long hospital stay.”

“A Ronald McDonald House allows the mother and the rest of her family to be together while the infant is still hospitalized,” says Hiller. “We’re sometimes able to provide rooming-in for the mothers if the hospital isn’t full, but not for the rest of the family.”

The Missoula Ronald McDonald House will have seven bedrooms and 13,000 square feet of living space. With a kitchen, laundry room and playroom, it offers a family setting for people with a seriously ill child in the nearby hospital. Payment can range from $5 to $20 per night on a sliding scale and is offered free to people who cannot afford to pay.

Nondi Phelps, R.N., is the project director for the newly chartered house. She has been traveling the state, talking to corporations as she begins the fundraising work to make the house a reality. It is a huge task. The cost is estimated at $1.9 million for construction.

“We need the support of the community to get the house built. The corporate donations and donations from community members are what it will take,” Phelps says. “The hospital serves a region from Salmon, Idaho, to Superior to Bozeman. And we’ll ask all those communities to help with the project too.”

Ronald McDonald House Charities has 208 houses in 18 countries. The first McDonald House opened in Philadelphia in 1974, and in the past 26 years it has served more than 2 million family members. The only other house in Montana is in Billings. That helped the Missoula project, Phelps says, because the two can be together under the same non-profit organization.

The project is moving forward quickly now. A board of directors will be chosen this week with representatives of the medical community, business and civic leaders, and parents and other volunteers. They will be assisted by a second advisory board. Figures compiled by the parent organization show that nearly 20,000 volunteers donate more than a million hours of time each year to keep the homes operating.

Fundraising will be the main goal through the summer and the group plans to break ground and begin construction this fall. The group has already received a $25,000 donation from the national Ronald McDonald House Charities and another $25,000 from Smurfit-Stone. No matter how quickly it happens, it can’t be too soon for the neonatal team members.

“No matter what you do, this is a stressful time for families,” says Hiller. “So often, we have a conflict between parents who want to spend time with the baby but don’t want to leave or neglect their other children. A Ronald McDonald House within minutes of the hospital will make a tremendous difference. The parent would love to have it built right now.”

“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have to find a place to stay so I could be near my baby,” Michele Mitchell says. “If I didn’t have family and close friends to support me, I wouldn’t be able to do it. This new Ronald McDonald House will benefit everyone.”

Anyone who wants more information or who would like to assist with the Ronald McDonald House project may contact Phelps at 728-4100, ext.7088. #

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