Ronald McDonald House
Big Island Family Staying Together Holding Each Other Up
By Gene Davis, RMHC-HI
In April 2002, 17-year-old Hilo High School student Melanie Carter wasn’t feeling well. She had been experiencing a pesky fever that would seem to go up and down and back up again, but wouldn’t go away. Thinking that it was just a cold, she continued to go to school until one day when severe abdominal discomfort sent her to the nurse’s office and then on to the doctor. Much to Melanie and her parents’ surprise and dismay, she was told that she was pregnant. A false positive urinalysis had led the doctors in the wrong direction.
Soon Melanie’s pain and fever got much worse, requiring a trip to the emergency room. It was there that the real truth began to be unveiled. More tests were done and an ultrasound detected a tumor. Melanie was immediately flown to Honolulu’s Queen’s Hospital and then moved to Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children for urgent surgery. After removing the large Germ Cell tumor, doctor’s decided against chemotherapy because of the tumor’s appearance and other indicators, believing that it wouldn’t recur.
“They thought that because it was encapsulated that there was a good chance they had gotten it all,” recalled mom Sarah, a program coordinator for an organization in Hilo offering traditional Hawaiian methods to address alcohol and substance abuse. But within a few months, a second tumor struck with a vengeance and Melanie was rushed back to Oahu for another surgery.
A little more than a month later, in her hospital room flanked by her parents, Sarah & Clarence, Melanie talked freely about her medical problems and her life as a teenager back home. It was day three of a five-day chemotherapy cycle, the third of four rounds scheduled for her. “They said I was pregnant but they found a ten pound tumor instead,” said Melanie from her bed. Aside from being a little self-conscious about losing her hair, she was coping bravely with the other unpleasant side effects of the treatments. “I look silly without my hair,” she laughed, pulling up her bandana to reveal her few remaining curly locks.
But Melanie doesn’t feel alone without hair. Dad Clarence, who also works for an agency in Hilo that offers substance abuse treatment, began sporting a shaved head himself during this second trip to Oahu. “They were trying to stabilize Melanie in emergency but she was having problems,” he said. Rather than sitting helplessly in the waiting room he decided to visit a nearby barber to take his hair off in support of Melanie. “It made her laugh,” he added with a smile.
“Melanie spent her 18th birthday in Intensive Care,” said Sarah. Since April, Melanie has fought off pneumonia, organ function failures, and the significant side effects of the treatments designed to save her life. What is her inspiration to keep fighting? The love of her parents; brothers Clarence III and David; and sister Kaleiolani, of course. “Sports!” added Melanie, a club swimmer. “And my friends. They told me they miss me a lot.”
Like most families unexpectedly uprooted from routines and support systems to attend to a child’s medical emergency away from home, the Carters camped out in Melanie’s room, to be nearby, thinking an expensive hotel was probably their only other option. When a hospital social worker told them about the Ronald McDonald House, they visited and immediately felt comfortable. “If I could choose between any hotel and the Ronald McDonald House for Melanie and us to stay at, I would pick the House,” Sarah said. “The support system is so wonderful and there are others there going through the same things, able to share stories and advice. It’s a wonderful place.”
Melanie said her fight against cancer has made her stronger and “not afraid of anything.” She would like to get home soon to see her friends and continue work on her latest art project—a chalk drawing of “a Hawaiian lady in a beautiful Hawaiian dress.”
“She’s the one holding up the mom & dad,” said Clarence, gesturing to Melanie. “You might think that it’s the other way around, but it’s not.” §