Three-year-old Erica Thornhill is sitting in her bed at the Janeway children’s hospital moving her finger across a small screen.
Her lack of hair is a giveaway that Erica is in the hospital’s oncology unit.
Erica was diagnosed with leukemia in August. Her parents, Robert Thornhill and Amanda Whyte of Carbonear, have been by her side ever since she was admitted to the Janeway shortly after her diagnosis. The couple’s younger daughter, Lauren, who is 10 months old, has also spent a lot of time in Erica’s hospital room during the past few months.
When Erica was first admitted to the Janeway, the family lived in her room for about three weeks. It’s where Whyte and the baby still spend their days and where Thornhill spends his nights.
“This is Erica’s whole world now,” Whyte says, looking around the hospital room.
She says things became easier for her family when Ronald McDonald House opened in St. John’s in September.
The house is on Clinch Crescent, a few minutes’ walk from the Janeway. It has 14 family suites and will accommodate more than 500 families with sick children each year. There’s a large kitchen, family room, television room, resource centre, home office, children’s play areas and laundry facilities.
Whyte says having a room at Ronald McDonald House means she has a place away from the hospital where she can go at night and have some privacy. Being able to have a hot bath after a long day gives her time to process what the doctors are telling her about Erica’s treatment, she said.
“I leave here to go over to Ronald McDonald House to sleep and then it’s right back here in the morning. Usually I’ve got Lauren with me because I’m nursing her. And when I’m gone, Erica’s dad is with her.”
Erica looks up when she hears her name. She points to a tiny tree decorated with red bulbs and a gold star near her bed On one branch, a wooden Elmo holds a “Merry Christmas Erica” sign.
On good days, Whyte says, Erica, will ask to get out of bed and sit next to the tree. She has had three rounds of chemotherapy so far.
Thornhill said it’s difficult to put into words what the family is going through.
“Something like this makes you truly realize what’s important and what’s not,” he said during an interview at Ronald McDonald House.
Thornhill said it was really hard, living in Erica’s hospital room for those first few weeks after she was admitted to the hospital, but they had little choice.
“We couldn’t stay in the hostel — that’s about $50 a day. Me and Amanda work at Wal-Mart. We couldn’t swing that, no way.”
The family will spend Christmas at the Janeway, with the parents taking turns sleeping at Ronald McDonald House.
On Jan. 1, Thornhill and Whyte are scheduled to leave for Sick Kids hospital in Toronto, where Erica will undergo a bone marrow transplant.
Thornhill says he’s hoping they’ll be transferred from Ronald McDonald House in St. John’s to the Ronald McDonald House near Sick Kids.
“If this place wasn’t here, I don’t know how we’d do it,” he said. “I really don’t.”
The Terry family of Grand Falls-Windsor has also been staying at Ronald McDonald House since it opened in September.
Anthony and Terrilynn’s 13-year-old daughter, LeAnn, was diagnosed with an uncontrolled seizure disorder at age six. Since then they’ve been travelling back and forth to St. John’s and often had to find short-term accommodations with relatives or at hotels.
LeAnn’s condition worsened this past summer and she became bedridden. On Aug. 13 she was admitted to the Janeway. Her parents knew her stay would likely be lengthy.
“We’ve been battling this for seven years and this year has been one of the worst yet,” Terrilynn said during an interview at Ronald McDonald House.
While they worried about LeAnn’s health, they also had to care for their other children, 15-year-old Jordan and 12-year-old Caitlyn.
Jordan and Caitlyn started the school year in central Newfoundland while their parents were staying at the hostel near the Health Sciences Centre.
Terrilynn says what she really wanted was for the family to be together in St. John’s.
In early September, she and Anthony were told that Ronald McDonald House was opening and that there was a room waiting for them.
“They welcomed us with open arms here,” Terrilynn says.
Jordan and Caitlyn go to school in St. John’s and their dad says they are doing well academically.
“I take them and pick them up. Then there’s lots for them to do here at Ronald McDonald House when they’re not in school,” Anthony says.
By now, Anthony knows Ronald McDonald House as well as his own home. He has no qualms about putting on an apron and making supper for his family and anyone else who might want to share the meal.
LeAnn was discharged from the Janeway on Dec. 3 and is staying with her family at Ronald McDonald House while she’s treated as an outpatient. It’s where they’ll likely be throughout the holidays.
“LeAnn loves Christmas. She’s asking for a dolly and some games,” Terrilynn says.
Christine Morgan, the house’s manager of development and communications, says there will be lots for families to do over the holidays. Children have already made gingerbread houses and community groups will prepare home-cooked meals and provide entertainment.
“Special times of the year are important to families, especially Christmas,” Morgan said. “And our goal is to make this as much like their own home as we possibly can.”
Terrilynn says if her family can’t be home in Grand Falls-Windsor for Christmas there’s nowhere better to stay than at Ronald McDonald House.
“You can’t get no closer to home than this. The kids are content here. That’s what makes it great for us.”