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When Angie Velasquez brought her son, Russell, into the pediatrician for a routine checkup she thought it would be exactly that — routine. She did not think it would mean she would soon be traveling more than 400 miles from her home in Las Vegas in order to save her son’s life.

The nurse gave Russell his immunization shots, and then Velasquez asked the pediatrician to look at a dot on Russell’s left eye. After leaving the exam briefly to do some research, the pediatrician rushed in to inform Velasquez that Russell would need to see a specialist. “I took him to the specialist that same day, and he thought it was retinoblastoma, but could not confirm the diagnosis, and told me it would need to be looked at further by another specialist,” Velasquez says.

That was four months ago, and the beginning of Russell’s cancer journey. A specialist was able to confirm the neuroblastoma in the eye of the gregarious and ninja-mutant-turtle loving 2-year-old. Russell’s left eye was removed, but then it was discovered the cancer had spread further into the optic nerve than initially thought, which meant he would have to endure chemotherapy. Doctors told Velasquez the best place for that kind of treatment was at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. She agreed to go, unsure of anything except her desire for her son to get better.

A place to call home

Once Vasquez got to Salt Lake City she found a place a home-away-from-home at the University of Utah Health Care Patient and Family Housing. She and Russell arrived there at two in the morning after a long journey from Las Vegas. They were exhausted and overwhelmed but the staff welcomed her with open arms. “I did not know what to expect, but they immediately made us feel right at home and they are so compassionate,” Velasquez says.

Thanks to Russell’s outgoing and loving nature he has made himself right at home at the guesthouse. “Russell walks right up to our guests with his contagious smile and proudly introduces himself and even gives tours for us,” says Adrienne Wilson, lodging manager at PFH. Russell can frequently be seen behind the front desk or checking on rooms to make sure they are ready for guests.

Above and beyond services and amenities

Guests at housing facilty will find an inexpensive, comfortable, clean and friendly environment for patient and family members who are going through the worst traumas imaginable. They can stay for a few days or for a few months. Patient and family members that are associated with University Hospital system can find a temporary home for as low as $50 per night. “We have guests whose loved one has been life-flighted and they arrive literally with the shirt on their back and we provide practical resources for them,” says Wilson.

At PFH guests enjoy services as: complimentary breakfasts, shuttle services, internet café, kitchenettes in the studio apartments, as well as an outdoor pool, indoor hot tub, and fitness center. Additionally, they provide support groups and assistance working with insurance companies.

The PFH has have tried to create a true home for their guests and treat them like family. “I remind our staff if it was your mother and she was scared and didn’t know what her prognosis was, how would you create a warm and welcoming environment?” Wilson says.

Looking forward

Doctors and Velasquez predict a bright future ahead for Russell. He is still receiving chemotherapy but looks forward to being fitted for a replacement left eye in March that will have to be replaced every few years until he finishes growing. In the near future, they are looking forward to welcoming his three sisters to Salt Lake for the holidays. All of them will be welcomed by Patient and Family Housing – just as Russell and his mom were.