Ronald McDonald House
The Incredible Power of Family
By Gene Davis
As this special story for the Honolulu Advertiser went to press, Ruthie Mersburgh was celebrating her 5th birthday in an isolation room at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children (KMCWC) with mom Charlene and dad Dan by her side. Ruthie wasn’t feeling very well from the effects of her latest round of chemotherapy but it was good to have her parents with her.
She has been through a lot since March of this year when she was diagnosed with stage-four neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks primarily children under five-years-old. With members of her loving family always nearby, Ruthie, so far, has endured 5 surgeries, 7 rounds of chemotherapy, and countless other medical procedures, as she alternates between inpatient and outpatient treatments.
It has been tough for the little girl and it hasn’t been easy for her family either. The Mersburghs live in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island and have two other children who both attend school. Fourteen-year-old Thomas makes the long trip by bus each morning to school at Kamehameha Schools-Hawaii Campus in Hilo, while 11-year old Rebekah attends Kealakehe Middle School in Kona.
Dan must continue to work at his job with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and look after the house and kids there, while Charlene stays with Ruthie at the Ronald McDonald House in Honolulu. Whenever possible, Dan, Thomas and Rebekah all fly to Oahu to stay with Ruthie.
On rare occasions, Ruthie and Charlene have been able to return to the Big Island for a few days, when there are momentary gaps in her active treatments.
Even though it may seem as though it was a bleak birthday for Ruthie, there was a sense of excitement in the air. There was even an expectant buzz in the hospital, where Ruthie is well known and loved by the nurses, doctors and other staff. The reason Ruthie is in isolation and receiving a strong course of chemotherapy is because she is being prepared for a relatively new procedure that has only been performed a few times in Hawaii.
Following her four days of chemo and three days of rest, Ruthie will receive a type of stem cell transplant that is now being used to fight certain forms of cancer. It is meant to complement surgery and chemotherapy. Doctors will infuse a huge number of Ruthie’s own stem cells back into her bloodstream, boosting her immune system, restarting her bone marrow, and ultimately helping to fight off the cancer. Back in April, doctors harvested the cells from Ruthie and have kept them in the deep freeze. They will be monitoring her closely following the procedure to gauge its effectiveness. But at least there is no fear of her body rejecting the cells since they are her own, and importantly, Ruthie knows another Big Island girl who received the same treatment earlier this year for a different form of cancer and was able to go home to resume her life. Ruthie met the other girl, Meredith Palafox, at the Ronald McDonald House and watched her go through the entire process.
Charlene says she and Ruthie greatly benefited from being around Meredith while the vivacious senior-to-be at Honokaa High School experienced her surgeries, chemotherapies and transplant. “Every day, I can cope better because of having been there as an extended family member of Meredith’s during her treatments.”
But it is still difficult. How are the Mersburghs able to pull together the strength and resolve necessary to face so many challenges and deal with such indescribable anxieties? “Faith in God and the support of family, friends, and the Ronald McDonald House is how we cope,” Charlene says. “But when I think about it, so many things Dan and I have been through together have prepared us. For instance, Dan serving in the Army helped me learn to be independent when I had to. I didn’t know it was preparing me for this test.” “We have decided that we are not going to let cancer destroy our family after all we’ve been through.”
When Ruthie first arrived at the Ronald McDonald House she was withdrawn. “She was so angry,” Charlene says. “Wouldn’t you be too? She was a normal four year old and hadn’t been sick a day in her life. She was blindsided by this. We all were.”
Charlene believes something special happened at the Ronald McDonald House over time and Ruthie is changing. “She is smiling, playing and talking now. I think she has accepted that God had his reasons. Now she is talking about the future.”
Charlene says Ruthie amazes her every day. “I just sit sometimes and marvel. Today she was asking questions about the transplant through her Build–a–Bear, Wally. Wally’s first question to me was why he couldn’t come into the transplant room too.”
Ruthie has met many other seriously ill kids during her stay at the Ronald McDonald House and now she goes out of her way to connect and support them. “Maybe it was something that Meredith passed to Ruthie without even knowing it,” Charlene says. “And maybe the children that Ruthie touches will inspire other children in the future when they need it. §
Charlene Mersburgh on the Ronald McDonald House:
“Back in March I was in chaos and I was over- whelmed by what was going on with Ruthie. And then I found Ronald McDonald House and it took so much stress away.”
“What people call the Ronald McDonald House turned out to be the family I didn’t know I had on Oahu.”
“It has been a big part of Ruthie’s treatment. Ruthie was so angry when we first got here that she wouldn’t talk to anybody. But everyone at the House continued to talk to her and encourage her without demanding that she respond. It slowly worked, she has broken out of her shell and she loves her Ronald McDonald House family. ”
“I don’t think Ruthie would have gotten over her anger if it weren’t for being here at the Ronald McDonald House. ”
“It has been so good for us to stay at the House. We have met families from many different cultures with so much in common with us, and my children have benefited by witnessing firsthand the work of volunteers and now understand its meaning and value.”