“I loved it there. It was so spacious and nice and immediately felt like home.” – Jennifer, RMHC Mom

Garrett Gunto was born 10 weeks early and weighed only 3 lbs. 4 oz. Twelve minutes after his birth, he was taken by ambulance to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at WVU Medicine Children’s. It was more than an hour away. His father, Cory, followed behind. His mother, Jennifer, remained in the hospital.

“I never even got to hold him before he left,” said Jennifer.

Two days later, Jennifer met her son for the first time. As he stayed in the hospital, she settled in across the street at the Ronald McDonald House Morgantown. It would be her home for the next 64 days. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cory stayed home with their 3 year-old daughter, Rylee.

Upon arriving at the Ronald McDonald House, Jennifer felt a little scared. She had never been alone before and now she was far from home with her son in the hospital. But that feeling quickly changed to hope.

“I loved it there,” Jennifer said. “It was so spacious and nice and immediately felt like home.”

Jennifer also remembers the staff asking her every day when she came back from the hospital how she and her son were doing.

“Everyone was just so nice,” she added. “I would not have been able to hold myself together if I was anywhere else.”

As the weeks went on, Garrett grew stronger. And after two months, Jennifer received the news that she could take her son home.

“I was so excited that I cried for the next three days,” she said. “My family was going to be back together and Rylee was going to be able to hold her baby brother.”

It has been several weeks since the Gunto family has been reunited at home. Garett now weighs more than eight pounds.

“He is doing wonderful,” said Jennifer. “He is really developing his personality.”

And as for Rylee, she loves having her little brother home because she gets to hold him every day.

“The Ronald McDonald House is a game-changer.” – Julie and Paul

In 2019, Julie and Paul Keck’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Alanna, was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease. She was in end-stage renal failure and only had 10 percent kidney function left. She was in need of a kidney transplant.

Julie and Paul were now faced with making the decision of where their daughter would get her transplant. After much research, they chose UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

For the next nine months, Alanna and Julie traveled back and forth from their home in Buffalo, New York for transplant evaluations, meetings, appointments, and testing. Each time they stayed at Ronald McDonald House Pittsburgh.

“Even though each visit was an overnight, it gave us a safe, inexpensive place to sleep and have a homemade meal,” said Julie.

When it was time for Alanna to have her transplant, her entire family was by her side including her two younger brothers, Emmett and Griffin. For the next five weeks, the family of five made their home at Ronald McDonald House Pittsburgh.

For Julie and Paul, staying at the Ronald McDonald House meant that they did not have to worry about the day-to-day tasks while caring for Alanna. There were homemade meals by volunteers, toiletries available so they didn’t have to go to the store, and activities for the boys.

It also gave them something they didn’t expect. Following exhausting days of bloodwork and doctor’s appointments, they could be together in their apartment to share, heal, and bond.

“We were separated a lot that year, and here we could be together,” Julie added.

The Keck family also met families from around the world during their stay. “We shared heartaches and triumphs and cheered each other on during some really hard and scary times,” said Julie. “We laughed together, cried together and prayed for each other.”

Alanna often said how she was thankful for the Ronald McDonald House, because there she was able to meet other kids and families who were going through similar experiences and it gave her perspective. She said, “I was very lucky. I was able to find a match quickly and start living my life again. Some wait years to find a donor. But others are going through much harder times and this journey made me realize that even more.”

Emmett and Griffin made friends too. They looked forward to seeing their new friends each night at dinner and in the playroom.

“When you think about relocating to another city for a period of time due to a medical crisis, you can’t possibly think of a place that feels like a home away from home. But that’s exactly what we found at the Ronald McDonald House in Pittsburgh. Without it, our entire transplant experience would have been much more stressful. It provided security and a sense of normalcy during a very jumbled and hectic five weeks,” said Julie.

When asked, Julie and Paul often say: “The Ronald McDonald House is a ‘game-changer.’ We’re not sure how we could have done this without their support.”

In honor of Julie and Alanna, Life Expressions Décor, Julie’s employer, designated the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh and Morgantown as its 2020 Charity of the Year.

“The Ronald McDonald House makes it work for us. It lets your family be who they are.” – Bill  

When Sumar Wightman was 28 weeks pregnant with her third child, Nolan, her doctor noticed a complication with his heart.  “It was a very tough time,” said her husband, Bill.

But through a fetal intervention procedure, Nolan’s physician successfully opened his heart valve before he was even born. The day after his birth, he had one more procedure and was quickly able to go home. For the next two years, Nolan had follow-up appointments with specialists and was doing very well. He did not even need medication.

Just before Nolan’s third birthday, it was determined that it was time for him to have one more heart procedure. Because his condition was aortic valve stenosis, an aortic leaf reconstruction called the Ozaki procedure was recommended.  The family traveled from their North Carolina home to Boston for the surgery, expecting to be able to return to their normal lives rather quickly. However, immediately following the surgery, Bill and Sumar were told that Nolan was in heart failure. They were taken completely by surprise. Nolan spent the next six weeks in the hospital. Then, they heard the words that their son needed a heart transplant.  “We had no idea, we would be going down this path,” said Bill.

With not much time to think about it, Bill and Sumar chose Pittsburgh for Nolan’s care. They knew not only that it was the best place for him medically but it was also the place where they could be together.  “The family has to be together,” said Bill.

In November 2019, Nolan went into the hospital to prepare for his transplant. His parents and big brother and sister, Logan and McKinley, went next door to stay at Ronald McDonald House Pittsburgh.

For the Wightmans, staying at the Ronald McDonald House allows them to be a family. “While one of us is with Logan and McKinley, the other can be with Nolan. And with just a push of an elevator button, we can switch,” said Bill.

At the Ronald McDonald House, Logan and McKinley keep very busy. Logan is home-schooled and both have made friends with the other siblings in the House.  “This would not be possible if we were not here,” added Bill.

They even got to attend a Penguins game with their new friends. “Sharing that Penguins experience with others who are in the same situation was uplifting for everybody,” said Bill.

Nearly six months after their arrival in Pittsburgh, Nolan had his transplant. “He is doing amazing,” said Bill. Just two weeks after the procedure, his feeding tube was removed and he began eating on his own. And according to Bill, Nolan is getting stronger every day in physical and occupational therapy. They anticipate he will be out of the hospital and able to join them soon.

“He is so resilient and such a conqueror,” said Bill.

The Wightman family never expected to be so far from home for so long. But being together makes their journey possible. “We will never forget how the Ronald McDonald House was there for us,” said Bill.

A Ronald McDonald House Family Message

Dear Friend,

It was a day like any other or so I thought. I was 24 weeks pregnant and headed to school to teach my fifth grade class. As the day progressed, I started to not feel well. My doctor asked me to come in to be seen. My blood pressure was so high that I was immediately admitted to the hospital. There, they were able to stabilize me so that I could be flown to a hospital where I could receive the specialized care that I needed. Two days later I gave birth to my daughter Eowyn. She weighed less than one pound.

Eowyn spent the next 270 days of her life in the hospital. I was right by her side because I spent 265 of those days at the Ronald McDonald House Morgantown. Without the Ronald McDonald House, my husband, Robert, and I would have traveled 2 ½ hours every day to see our daughter.

The Ronald McDonald House was a lifesaver for us. It gave us a calm place to rest our head at night, to get a hot meal and to do our laundry.

The laundry was my favorite part. The nurses at the hospital gave me the option to wash Eowyn’s blankets and little personal belongings. I loved doing that because it gave me a sense of being a mom. Doing my daughter’s laundry while she was in the hospital was the best thing for me. It gave me a sense of purpose.

Today, my strong daughter is two-years-old. She now weighs 23 pounds and is starting to army crawl. We still travel to see her physicians, and at times need to stay at the Ronald McDonald House. But it does not matter if we are spending the night or are there for a daytime appointment, we always make time to say hello to our friends at the Ronald McDonald House.

Allegra Hensley

“The Ronald McDonald House has been a lifesaver.” – Carolyn

When the doctor first told Cathy she was pregnant with twins, she could barely believe it. She and her husband, Brad, were excited and looking forward to meeting their new son and daughter, who were due on December 5th.

At 27 weeks, however, Cathy experienced some complications. She was hospitalized for 11 days. Brad and Cathy’s mother, Carolyn, stayed just steps away at Ronald McDonald House (RMH) Morgantown. Cathy was hospitalized two more times due to going into preterm labor. After the third time, her physicians wanted her to stay close by for monitoring. Her mother stayed with her at the Ronald McDonald House which was just across the street from her care. Cathy’s husband went home during the week to work but was able to join them on the weekends.

Both mother and daughter were surprised by how comfortable the beds were and appreciated all of the meals made by the volunteer groups. Most of all they had peace of mind knowing that the hospital was so close by.

“It would be hard to make the two-hour drive back and forth from home in my condition for my doctor’s appointment twice a week,” said Cathy.

At 34 weeks, Cathy and Brad’s son and daughter were born. They are doing well and after a few weeks in the hospital, the family of four was able to go home.

Richardson Family standing in front of RMH Morgantown Image

“I love this place” – Lilah

With a huge grin on her face, Lilah will tell you that her favorite space at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) Pittsburgh is the playroom. For her mother Katherin, she finds comfort sitting and talking with the other families.

Three-year-old Lilah was born with a rare kidney disease that had also affected her liver. After two years of receiving dialysis, Katherin was told that her daughter needed a multi-organ transplant. It was something she was not expecting to hear. Lilah’s physician additionally told Katherin that she needed the transplants quickly and advised her to look for living donors. With the help of family and friends, Katherin found two matches. In the summer of 2018, Lilah had both transplants just one day apart.

While Lilah was recovering, Katherin stayed at RMH Pittsburgh.  At times her family stayed there with her. It meant a lot to Katherin and Lilah to have family there with them. It was especially meaningful when Lilah’s big sister could visit.  Lilah and her mom would prepare for her sister’s visits by baking cookies in the community kitchen.

After three months, Lilah was able to go home to Mississippi where she could be with her big sister.

“The Ronald McDonald House has been a blessing, it has become our second home,” said Katherin.

Lilah and Mom smiling Image
Lilah smiling holding a Pittsburgh Penguins pillow image

“Babies need their families. It is healing power.” – Tasha

Benny’s mom, Tasha, describes her son as a fighter because that is what he has been doing since birth. Born with several heart defects, Benny had open heart surgery at only two weeks of age. Not long after, he suffered a stroke. His journey has taken Benny’s family to both the Ronald McDonald House  Morgantown and the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) Pittsburgh.

At her 20 week ultrasound, Tasha received the news that her baby had multiple heart defects. Because her community hospital was not equipped to handle his birth, Tasha would need to deliver an hour from home at a hospital in Morgantown.  Following Benny’s birth, his parents and big brother were able to stay near him at the RMH Morgantown.

As Benny grew stronger, the family of four was able to go home but only to return following some complications.  Benny’s physician decided to transport Benny via helicopter to Pittsburgh to be put on ECHMO, bypass life support.

Benny continues his fight now more than two hours from home. His mom, dad and big brother remain right there by his side. This time they are staying at RMH Pittsburgh.

“Being close to him is paramount,” said Tasha. “It is because of the Ronald McDonald House that I was with him the first time he opened his eyes,” she added.

Benny looking into the camera image
Benny and Parents when he was born Image

“It is great for Cloud to be at the Ronald McDonald House. It gives him stability and normalcy in an unusual circumstance.”  – Sloane

Around the time their son, Cloud, was getting ready to celebrate his third birthday, Sloane and Carlyle Kirbo noticed he was having difficulty walking. Concerned with what they saw, they took him to see his physician who then referred him to a specialist in Atlanta. Two weeks later, Cloud was diagnosed with Krabbe Disease.

Leaving their home in Southern Georgia, the family of three began a journey that would next take them to Pittsburgh. “This is a very rare disease and we needed to come here to see an expert,” said Carlyle.

Once there, Cloud received a bone marrow transplant. His parents were relieved to be able to stay so close to him at the Ronald McDonald House Pittsburgh.

“It is really nice to be connected to the hospital,” said Sloane. “We don’t even have to go outside.”

Several weeks after his transplant, Cloud was able to join his parents at the Ronald McDonald House. He continues to see his physician and therapists at the hospital and once his central line is removed, he will be able to go home. But until then, he can be with his mom and dad at the House.

“It is great for Cloud to be at the Ronald McDonald House. It gives him stability and normalcy in an unusual circumstance,” said Sloane.

The apartment-style setting at the Ronald McDonald House has been perfect for the Kirbo family. Due to Cloud having a suppressed immune system, he is not able to be around others at this time. The Ronald McDonald House gives him his own space to play with his favorite toys. And his mom will tell you that those are his cars and trucks.

His parents are also appreciative of having their own kitchenette in their apartment.  “Cloud is on a strict diet and it gives us the space to prepare all of his special meals and to store them separately in our own refrigerator,” said Sloane.

Not knowing if they would be home for the holidays, Clouds’s parents were worried about how they would celebrate. The Ronald McDonald House put those worries to ease.

“It is amazing what they do for the families during that time of year with all of the meals and presents,” said Carlyle.

Each year, the Ronald McDonald House sets up a special room that allows families who can’t be home during the holidays to choose gifts for their children. When Carlyle visited the toy room, he picked a fire truck for his son that lights up and makes noise. Cloud loved it.  “It was the best present for sure,” said Sloane with tears in her eyes.

It has been nearly six months since the Kirbo family left their home. They are grateful that the Ronald McDonald House is here.

“No one ever thinks they will need it,” said Sloane. “It is our home-away-from-home.”

Far from Home, but Not Alone

For six hours each day, five-year-old Jaxson can leave his hospital room and join his mom at Ronald McDonald House Pittsburgh. “It’s so nice, he gets a break from being in the hospital and it gives us a sense of normalcy,” said Katie, Jaxson’s mom.

Jaxson has been in the hospital for the last three months following an intestinal, liver and pancreatic transplant. His physicians tried to delay the procedure for as long as possible, but in March of 2015 he needed to be placed on the organ transplant waiting list. Nearly three years later, he and his mom received the call that took them from their home in Arizona to Pittsburgh.

Katie has been staying at Ronald McDonald House Pittsburgh since the day they arrived. She appreciates all the House has to offer including only being steps away from her son’s hospital room and the meals that the volunteers make for the families staying there. In addition, both Katie’s mom and daughter have been able to visit and stay with her at the House for a period of time.

“I love that, you don’t feel alone,” said Katie.

She is especially appreciative of seeing her daughter whom she hadn’t seen in nearly two months. And according to Katie, she felt that Jaxson seeing his little sister has really helped with his recovery.

Jaxson and Katie may be able to go home soon and rejoin the rest of their family. Something they are both looking forward to. They will be back though because Jaxson has rejected his small intestine and will once again be placed on the organ transplant list. Jaxson’s fight continues and mom will be there right by his side.

Although being far from home is never easy for the thousands of families served at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh and Morgantown each year, it is our hope that by providing comfort and support we can help alleviate the stress of the situation and give families the opportunity to do what they need to do most – focus on their children.

Jaxson and his sister sitting with Ronald image
Jaxson and his mom standing beside plane image
Jaxson and his sister holding hands image

Meet Skylar’s Family

Skylar, Lily, Kayla and their grandmother, Linda, were first introduced to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh and Morgantown when they stayed at Ronald McDonald House Morgantown. Skylar, 15, was having kidney issues that required her to be hospitalized. Shortly thereafter, she was transferred to a hospital in Pittsburgh for a kidney transplant evaluation. Just four months later, she received one.

While Skylar was in the hospital for her surgery, Lily, Kayla and Linda were only a few steps away from her, this time at the Ronald McDonald House Pittsburgh. Staying there meant they could be by Skylar’s side the whole time. And even though Skylar is now home and back to school, this family of four continues to travel four hours once a month for her medical care, each time staying at the charity.

“From the very beginning the process was easy,” said Linda. “They tell you about the meals that are prepared by the volunteers, set you up with your linens and just help you get settled,” she added.

Nearly a year later, the Ronald McDonald House has become their “home-away-from-home.” “Every time Lily and Kayla walk into the House, they automatically look for the coloring books and then make a bowl of cereal. They know exactly where to go,” said Linda. So often, Linda is not sure how long they will be staying at the charity. Skylar’s appointments can vary and recently they had to make an unscheduled medical trip over the holidays. During this time, the girls were able to meet the characters from Frozen at a Ronald McDonald House holiday party. “It was so much fun for them,” said Linda. “They just make everything special,” she added.

The Ronald McDonald House has given Linda and her granddaughters the opportunity to be together throughout Skylar’s medical care. As Skylar continues her recovery, her sisters and grandmother will continue to be there. “It’s important for Skylar to have everyone be a part of this and at the Ronald McDonald House we can,” said Linda.