“YOU literally want to split yourself in two and you can’t. I want to be in both places at once. I want to be at home with my two boys and I want to be here with Kate. When I’m home, I’m worried about her and when I’m in Dublin, I worry about them.”
Those were the words of Cork mother Sandra Ryan who is staying at The Ronald McDonald House in Dublin this Christmas with her husband Brendan to be near to their four-year-old daughter Kate who has just undergone her fifth open-heart surgery.
The Ronald McDonald House provides accommodation and a caring, supportive environment for families whose children are seriously ill and hospitalised at CHI at Crumlin.
The Ryans from Carrigtwohill have been staying at The Ronald McDonald House for the better part of Kate’s life after she was born with a complex heart condition.
“It started with an anomaly scan at 22 weeks – that was August 2016.
“At that point the deformity with her heart was picked up.
“We were due to have an induction in Dublin so Kate was going to be born near the hospital but Kate wanted that Rebel passport so she arrived a week earlier in CUMH.
“As soon as she stabilised she was transferred to Crumlin.
“The condition that Kate was born with is called Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) – essentially Kate functions on half a working heart so she has only has one ventricle and one atrium,” Sandra explained.
“We were familiar with The Ronald McDonald House because a friend of ours had stayed in the House so we knew that facility was available.
“My husband rang and they told us we were on a waiting list. They’re so sought after they just don’t have enough room to facilitate everyone.
“Luckily, the following day on December 15, before I even got to Dublin, there was a room available to us,” she continued.
Fast-forward four years and Sandra and her husband will be spending yet another Christmas in The Ronald McDonald House.
Due to Covid-19, this year their two other children, 11-year-old Conor and 9-year-old James won’t be staying in the House, but will be remaining in Cork.
“You still have to keep everything going for the two at home. If it was up to myself, Brendan and Kate I think we would just cancel Christmas and just forget it’s even happening,” Sandra said.
“Although Kate is our priority at the moment, I can’t forget that I have two other children, they need their mom and they miss me so you have to keep things going for them and you have to keep Christmas going for them – the world can’t stop.
“It is very difficult though, particularly as they get older they are more aware of Kate’s vulnerability and they’re more aware of the anxiety around the house coming up to the surgery.
“This was a very high-risk surgery. We’re a little bit out the other end but we’re not 100% there yet,” she continued.
This year hospitals have had to restrict visits to one parent, which has made a tough situation even more challenging, Sandra said.
“Me and my husband can’t be with Kate at the same time. We take turns being with her but it’s very hard not to have the support of the other person. The House has been a haven between visits.”
The Ryans will one of 20 families staying at The Ronald McDonald House this Christmas.
Since opening 16 years ago it has housed over 4,300 families from across the country.
The current Ronald McDonald House on average provides over 12,000 meals a year to these families and collectively saves these families approximately €700,000 annually.
This year Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) anticipates a €500,000 shortfall in fundraising due to Covid-19, culminating in December with the cancellation of their annual Christmas Ball.
The event that takes place every year typically raises in excess of €100,000 for the charity.
Lauding the House, Sandra says The Ronald McDonald House has been a home-away-from-home during immensely difficult circumstances.
“When you have a child in intensive care, you can’t really be that parent – you sit there, you hold their hand but you’re kind of excess to requirement. You’re in the way as such.
“Pre-Covid, because of course, Covid has changed things a bit, having the room in the House allowed me to parent my two other children.
“Our two boys were five and seven when Kate was born.
“Of course they were quite young and didn’t fully understand but we were able to bring them with us a few days a week, not every week, but we were able to still maintain that unit.
“I was able to cook for them and I was able to shower them and bath them and cut their nails – silly, pedantic things but they actually mean the world when it’s something you’re thinking about,” she said.
“It’s also the financial strain which I think a lot of people don’t think about - when you’re living in a different county but still trying to maintain a house in Cork.
“The Ronald McDonald House takes a bit of that pressure off,” she continued.
Sandra said it is also a huge comfort to be amongst people who are in the same predicament.
“You couldn’t buy the support, you couldn’t buy the proximity to your sick child.
“Only families that have been in that situation really understand,” she said.
Marian Carroll, who has been CEO on a voluntary basis of RMHC Ireland for 16 years, said the charity is now urgently appealing for donations.
“Since we opened in 2004 Christmas has been the highlight of our year and a special time for our families, staff and volunteers.
“This year it is essential that we provide an extra special Christmas in our House at this very difficult time.
“Childhood illness does not take a holiday over Christmas and nor can we.
“We need the people of Ireland to help us deliver a wonderful Christmas to all the families that will need to stay with us at The Ronald McDonald House.”
To support families of sick children in hospital this Christmas, visit www.rmhc.ie to donate directly or text HOUSE to 50300 to donate €4.