Five years ago, the Bertelsen-Joyce family from Awatuna, Taranaki had no idea Ronald McDonald House existed. Now, they call it their ‘home-away-from-home’ after staying for over 90 nights.
In 2014, 13-year-old Josephine had just started high school. She was a happy student who loved PE and playing her electric guitar but suddenly her world turned upside down. Mum Roni recalls: “She had fainted at school, then a few days later she lost her appetite and was in tears from the pain of her kidneys burning.”
With the local doctor closed for a long weekend, Roni and Josephine drove for an hour to the New Plymouth A&E. There, Roni was told the heart-breaking news that her daughter had leukaemia.
“I’m a pretty strong person, I don’t cry much, but I do remember when they told me my daughter had leukaemia I cried. It was gutting, because what do you do? ” says Roni. She adds that Josephine’s father had passed away from cancer just nine months earlier, which made the situation even more unbearable for her family.
Josephine urgently needed a bone marrow transplant at the National Children’s Hospital in Auckland. Roni was ordered to go home immediately, pack a bag and be ready to fly to Auckland.
Roni had no time to collect her other children, leaving them behind in Taranaki, while Josephine and her boarded an emergency flight.
Roni stayed by Josephine’s side in those first few weeks, hardly leaving the hospital bed. Josephine’s siblings Kaycey and Jaxsyn soon travelled to be with extended family in Hamilton, visiting their Mum and sister on day trips to the hospital when they could.
Amidst the uncertainty and chaos, Roni was surprised to hear a room had been prepared for her and all of the children at Ronald McDonald House. Roni remembers being amazed there was somewhere close to the hospital they could stay together at no cost.
“I was like wow, it has more comforts than home. You don’t sleep up at the hospital, the machines are constantly beeping, and then there’s the anxiety of being up there. So to be able to come to Ronald McDonald House, close yourself off, and rest, takes the pressure off,” remembers Roni.
Having a comfortable ensuite apartment for the family to stay in meant the world to Roni. When Kaycey and Jaxsyn arrived to just a couple of days later, she was comforted to have all of her children close.
She says staying at Ronald McDonald House has helped immensely with their difficult family journey. It’s not just the bedrooms but also the nourishing meals cooked by volunteers, the relaxing lounges and the extra kindness from everybody at the House which make the difference.
Roni and Josephine say Ronald McDonald House is a special place because there is a ‘spirit of wanting to be there to help’. Roni remembers one particular evening after surgery. They were still at the hospital when they got call from Geraldine, a staff member at Ronald McDonald House. “She hadn’t seen us so called to check on us. She wrapped up two meals from dinner and put them in the fridge so that when we got back from the hospital, there would be a decent meal for us. That is just beautiful, and that is how everyone is at the House.”
It wasn’t long before Roni developed friendships with families staying at Ronald McDonald House, which she says helped her get through some dark times. “Other families in this House knew what we were going through. We had families come up to us and say ‘it’s okay to feel what you are feeling, it will pass. We were in the same boat two weeks ago and look we’ve come through it now’. It gave a little bit of our mana, our strength, back to know that we were all going to be okay.”
One of Josephine’s fondest memories is a special moment shared with two other transplant patients at the House. “There’s a photo I love. Three transplant children on a sunny day at Ronald McDonald House. We had all been up at the hospital for weeks and that day we could sit at the House together, relax, be normal and have a laugh. These friendships helped a lot with the healing.”
Roni says their family simply couldn’t have got through these years without the support of RMHC New Zealand. “We had some pretty long stays, up to a few weeks. We couldn’t have afforded to stay that long at a motel or even a backpackers in Auckland. We would’ve had to stay with family in Hamilton and travel to and from the hospital every day. Financially, we wouldn’t have been able to manage, let alone emotionally.”
Five years on, Josephine is clear of cancer but, because of her particular condition, as she gets older her chances of getting multiple cancers increases. She will continue to need frequent check-ups in Auckland as a precaution – and is comforted knowing that each time the family will stay at Ronald McDonald House.