Somehow, Wagga mum Mikaela Watson is able to crack jokes and laugh as she recounts how she came to stay at the Ronald McDonald House Canberra not one but three times.
“If you don’t laugh, you cry,” she says.
Her attention flits between the conversation and her three-year-old son Jaxson, who has been given sticker books to occupy him.
“That should buy us a good few minutes,” she laughs again.
But when she explains that Jaxson had stopped growing in utero at around 23 weeks, she noticeably sobers.
“He weighed only 570 grams at birth,” she says.
Born in October 2019 at 29 weeks, it’s hard to imagine the energetic toddler as a fragile premature baby in Canberra Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) – but that’s where Earth-side life began for Jaxson.
Gastro complications were compounded by cardiac arrest during surgery to repair a double hernia, meaning the tiny child required a prolonged stay in the NICU.
Given Wagga was a good 2.5-hour-drive away, it was an enormous relief to Mikaela and her partner, Josh, that Ronald McDonald House Canberra (RMHC) could accommodate them.
“I knew of Ronald McDonald House but I didn’t realise the one in Canberra was literally in the hospital. I just had to go down one floor and everything we needed was there,” she says.
“I honestly have no idea what I would have done otherwise … I don’t know how we would have afforded accommodation for that long in Canberra.”
This year RMHC celebrates 10 years of assisting families like Mikaela’s in Canberra.
Accommodating about 240 families a year with no government assistance, it relies on its 150-odd volunteers and the generosity of the ACT and Southeast NSW community to raise the $650,000 a year it needs to keep its “big red doors” open.
Located one floor below the Canberra Hospital’s NICU, the House offers 10 rooms, each with two single beds and a bathroom and one large enough to accommodate an additional double bed for bigger families.
Communal spaces include a kitchen, where the shared pantry and fridge are stocked with cereal, eggs, milk, bread and non-perishable staples.
Here, in-house or corporate and community volunteers often cook for the families staying in the House to help sustain them as they focus their energy on their children recovering in intensive care.
“I don’t think the volunteers realise how much us families in the House appreciate that,” Mikaela says.
“When we were in the House, there were also four other women who had babies upstairs [in the NICU] staying there. For us, that was our time to look after ourselves, and having nutritious food cooked for us was a godsend.
“I was expressing milk for Jaxson, so I needed to eat properly and stay hydrated. In order to provide for him, I had to take care of myself, but at the time it just wasn’t a consideration.”
And beyond this, Mikaela says the social benefits she enjoyed at the House enrich her life today.
“During that time, Jaxson’s dad had to go to work in Wagga and then he’d come back and join us on the weekends. It was like we were living a double life,” she says.
“I built relationships with the other women staying there; we were able to support each other because we each understood what the others were going through.
“When Josh wasn’t there, they were my go-tos. We still talk to each other frequently.”
Mikaela and Josh returned to the House in July 2021 and again in September this year (2022) as Jaxson underwent and recovered from a two-part hypospadias repair surgery.
For obvious reasons, she hopes it will be her last stay at the House. But that’s not to say there aren’t any pangs.
“I’m not going to lie – I do miss the home-cooked meals,” she laughs yet again.
“Seriously though, the people who run it are amazing; they genuinely care. We walk in now and they know exactly who we are and ask us how Jaxson is doing.
“It really has been our home away from home.”
Ronald McDonald House Canberra is one of the three core vital programs run by Ronald McDonald House Charities ACT and Southeast NSW. The charity will celebrate 10 years of supporting families with seriously ill or injured children and premature infants in Canberra on 16 October.
Visit the Ronald McDonald House Canberra website for more information.