It’s a Minnesota family’s dream: a Hawaiian vacation to escape the winter cold. But for Jill and Greg…it quickly turned into a scary and stressful reality.
Greg’s parents were celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary and paid for all their kids and grandkids to join them on the tropical trip. Despite being 32 weeks pregnant, Jill was assured it was safe for her to travel and enjoy time with family. Everything was good.
Until she went into labor.
“I couldn’t believe it; I was seven weeks early,” said Jill. “But Anna was coming.”
Anna was born in a small hospital on the island of Kauai – the fourth largest Hawaiian Island with a population of 73,298. She was in the hospital for two days, but her condition was deteriorating. The hospital did not have the resources to support her level of need, so she was life-flighted to Honolulu.
“She was losing weight and wasn’t breathing well,” said Greg.
“When you hear that your newborn child needs to be life-flighted and is in critical condition…it’s serious,” Jill said.
Anna was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She was four pounds when she was born, and her lungs were not fully developed. She simply needed more time.
But Jill and Greg were 4,000 miles from home. What would they do? Where would they stay? How much would it cost? All their questions were answered by the Ronald McDonald House on Oahu Avenue in Manoa Valley.
Before Jill, Greg, and Anna arrived in Honolulu, a social worker told them about Ronald McDonald House Charities Hawaii. Jill and Greg knew about Ronald McDonald Houses in Minnesota, but assumed they were financial based and that they would not meet the criteria.
“Thankfully…we were wrong,” said Jill.
“We were not prepared for a one-month stay in Hawaii,” Greg said. “The House allowed us to focus on getting Anna healthy and getting Anna home.”
“We were so far from home, and we needed a place to stay while Anna grew stronger,” said Jill. “The staff and other guests quickly became our family.”
“Our stay was eight years ago, and we have maintained those friendships,” Greg said.
While Jill and Greg were in Honolulu with Anna, their two older daughters – Emma and Sara – continued the family vacation with their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Both remember their mom leaving for the hospital, saying, “I’m not having the baby,” followed by a month without their parents in Hawaii and Minnesota.
“It’s an experience I will never forget,” said Emma.
“Our extended family watched over us; everything was OK,” said Sara.
“We finished the nursery and prepared for our baby sister to come home,” Emma said.
While doctors in Hawaii were not particularly excited for Anna to travel – let alone fly – during cold and flu season, Jill and Greg advocated for her return to Minnesota to be with her sisters, family, and medical team at Mayo Clinic.
So, after three weeks…Anna came home.
And she experienced no complications.
When Jill and Greg returned home, they told their older daughters about their time in the hospital, particularly the pet therapy dogs. Emma had previously trained their golden retriever, Bailey, for 4-H. 4-H is a network of youth organizations, whose original motto referenced head, heart, hands, and health. Their story gave Emma an idea…
“Bailey is the definition of a therapy dog,” said Emma. “And once we completed her certification, we wanted to volunteer at the nearby Ronald McDonald House.”
Emma and Bailey started volunteering when Emma was 14 years old. They started in hospice care and nursing homes, but their hearts were with kids. When the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester called for Emma and Bailey to start…they signed up immediately.
That was seven years ago.
“Seeing kids smile and parents relax as they spend time with Bailey…” Emma said. “It makes it all worth it.”
When Emma graduated and left for college, Sara was excited for her opportunity to volunteer with Bailey at the House. After watching Emma train Bailey, she trained the neighbor’s dog. And after watching Emma and Bailey volunteer for years, she was ready to step in as the primary handler.
“I learned so much from Emma,” said Sara. “And I simply enjoy making people happy; bringing joy.”
Jill, Greg, and Anna occasionally accompanied Emma, Sara, and Bailey on the visits to the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester. They recently added Nelli, a second golden retriever, to the family, and Anna hopes she can train her and volunteer at the House one day.
“The Ronald McDonald House on Oahu Avenue was an incredible gift for our family,” said Greg. “We love returning and giving back, and we love volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House of Rochester.”