The Innes Smith family from Christchurch love celebrating Christmas. Every year, together with their extended family, they enjoy a BBQ in the sun.
But last year they couldn’t be home for Christmas.
Daughter Holly (then nine) had been receiving special medical treatment at the National Children’s Hospital in Auckland since August, while her parents Debbie and Jim, and her three younger sisters stayed close by at Ronald McDonald House.
Holly had been diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal disease called aplastic anemia. She would need weekly blood transfusions, and had a high risk of infection and bleeding, making it impossible for her to carry out day to day activities. She needed a bone marrow transplant and her younger sister Belle (then six) was a perfect match.
On hearing the news, the family immediately moved to Auckland for eight weeks of treatment with just a bag of clothes each. Debbie recalls they were so relieved to know they could stay at Ronald McDonald House, not realising at the time that eight weeks would turn into months.
Two weeks before Christmas, Debbie and Jim were told they all needed to stay in Auckland while Holly had more treatment. They worried how they would keep the magic of Christmas – a favourite time for all of the girls - alive for their precious young children.
Little did they know, that thanks to the wonderful donors and volunteers who support RMHC New Zealand, it would be an incredible Christmas - one they would never forget.
Debbie was struck by the incredible generosity of everyone who supported the House during this time.
“It was a Christmas week! There were about four Christmas parties put on by volunteers, beautiful food and so many presents. The kids were utterly spoilt rotten - which they adored! What the staff and volunteers did for families like ours was amazing.”
On Christmas day, Holly and her sisters enjoyed unwrapping more presents and the family tucked into a lovely breakfast prepared by volunteers. “It was nice not having to rush around everywhere. The House and all the festivities allowed us to spend precious moments together and provided a wonderful distraction from the hospital. It created some of the most special memories for my family.”
With their stay at the House now reaching beyond a year while Holly receives more treatment, Debbie and Jim are thankful their girls have been able to grow and thrive in such a homely environment. “All the kids just love it here. Things like art classes, face painting, yoga and all the friends they’ve made here have really helped our family’s journey,” says Debbie.
“The House is Holly and Belle’s safe place, away from the hospital and all the needles. Frankie has reached so many milestones, learning to roll over, crawl and walk at the House. She loves walking out to reception and saying hello. Willow is like a completely different kid to when she arrived - she used to be so shy and now with so many people around, she’ll chat to anyone. And Belle, she just loves going to school here and has been doing so well!”
Debbie looks back to when they heard about Holly’s condition, with youngest daughter Frankie just two weeks old, and she says she didn’t know how the family would move to Auckland to get Holly the treatment she so desperately needed.
They were incredibly apprehensive about what the next weeks might hold. As soon as they stepped into the House, they were blown away by what was available. “The day we got here, we didn’t have our own transport or know our way around. Just to have food available and all your linen, towels and everything - I just couldn’t believe how much the House actually provides. It’s amazing,” remembers Debbie.
Debbie says the friendships of other families going through similar journeys is an unexpected and wonderful surprise which has helped Holly throughout her treatment. “Holly has become best friends with one of the other girls at the House, Hope. They do everything together and it’s been an amazing support to Holly.”
At the thought of what their journey might’ve looked like without the House, Debbie says they just wouldn’t have coped. “I would’ve had to be up here with Holly, and Jim would be back home, working and looking after the girls. We wouldn’t have been able to afford to live up here in temporary accommodation and I just couldn’t stand to be away from the kids for that long. I couldn’t have done it without my family here, I would’ve gone nuts.”
As Holly continues to need treatment, the Innes Smiths are thankful to all the donors and supporters who have enabled them to stay together as a family.
“Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts. There’s no way we could’ve done it without the House. It’s given us normality, made our unbearable journey a lot more bearable, and is truly our ‘home-away-from-home’.”
As Christmas approaches, the Innes Smiths are unsure whether it will be spent with family in Christchurch or at the House, but they know that either way it will be a magical one, filled with special memories.