When Rachel Blatt has a minute to stop and think, she thinks about how quickly life can change. One day her daughter Willow was just fine. The next she was having seizures. From their home in Manila, Utah, it was a 1 1/2-hour ambulance ride to Rock Springs, Wyo. By then Willow was in a coma and was life-flighted to Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
They said it was encephalitis, a brain fever brought on by an attack of the influenza A virus. All Rachel knows is that when Willow, who is nearly 2, came out of the coma, she had lost everything she knew and had to begin the slow and painful process of learning it all again: relearning how to stand up, how to walk, how to make noises, how to cry."I never thought it would be so wonderful to hear her cry," says Rachel. But when Willow learned to cry - some four weeks into her rehab - she was not the only one.
Willow has been at the hospital for seven weeks now. For the first week Steve Blatt stayed in Salt Lake City, too. "He did the day shift at the hospital, and I did the night shift. Then he had to go back to work." (Steve is a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service.)
The Blatts, who moved to Utah from Alaska two years ago, have no family in the Salt Lake area. They were able to get into the Ronald McDonald House.
"After the first days, we passed the critical period, and we knew Willow wasn't going to die. It's been so nice to have a place to get some rest, have some time to myself, to recharge. I can't sleep at the hospital."
Rachel still spends most of her time with Willow. Steve comes on weekends. And even though Willow's situation is past the critical point, it has been very stressful.
"Sometimes when I can't sleep, I get up in the middle of the night and go back to the hospital. That's what's so nice about this place, I can come and go, and it's close." And, she says, "I've been overwhelmed at how nice everyone is." She has enjoyed talking with the other women at the house, finding strength in their common bond. "Being able to be at the house has made such a difference," she says.
Willow is making good progress. Working with therapists Lorraine Petersen and Elizabeth Jones, she is learning to stand. They use a big rubber ball to help her learn to roll over. They talk, and Willow gurgles, even fusses a bit.
"She is learning to express herself," says Rachel. "For a long time she didn't even want to be touched - sensory defensiveness, I think they call it - but now that doesn't bother her as much. At first she couldn't look to her right, but now she can. They think that she'll be able to sit up by herself in a couple of weeks."
Each day, in fact, there are new milestones reached, new things to look forward to. Crawling, walking, sitting. You forgot how much is involved in being a baby until you go through it step-by-step again, says Rachel. "It's a day-by-day thing," she says. "That's the scariest thing. They can't tell us how far she'll progress. So, we take it a day at a time."
Willow is doing so well, however, that she may not have to stay at the hospital for the six or eight more weeks doctors originally thought she'd need. "Now, they're saying that if we can line up some outpatient therapy, and if all goes well, we can go home maybe even next week.
"God works miracles through these people. I believe that," says Rachel.
Those are feelings shared by Deanna and Larry Cullins, who also had their lives turned upside down when their baby was born two months early.
They had no inkling that would happen. "It was a complete surprise," says Larry. They're both teachers at Rock Springs High School, "and then we stayed after to run the concession stand for a ballgame. Late that night Deanna started having pains." Little Trey David was born that night, weighing 3 lbs. and 15 oz. "His lungs weren't fully developed, and his vital organs weren't getting the oxygen they needed, so he was Life-Flighted here."
That was on Feb. 21. Deanna has been here ever since, spending on average 12 hours a day at the hospital, with Larry coming on the weekends. Like the Blatts, the Cullins have found a refuge at the Ronald McDonald House.
"We were really lucky to get in there, because we heard it was full," said Deanna. In her case, because Larry took the car when he went back home, having transportation provided has been a big help. "I don't know what we'd have done."
Trey spent two weeks on a ventilator and had to have a blood transfusion, but he now weighs 5 lbs. 2 ounces. "It's amazing how excited you can get over just an ounce," says Deanna. "He can't eat completely on his own yet, but he's doing wonderfully well. In fact, he's `going on a picnic' Monday if everything goes well. That's what they call it; it means going home, but they don't want to jinx it by using the H word."
In the weeks that Deanna has been staying at the Ronald McDonald House, she has come to not only appreciate the facilities there but also her own circumstances. It has been a trying experience with Trey, "but we've seen so much worse. We've seen teens with cancer, and kids in severe car accidents. One boy was run over by a truck. There's so much awful stuff out there."
And in times such as those, it's nice to know that places such as the Ronald McDonald House can provide a bit of brightness, a bit of hope, a bit of home.
"It's a wonderful place," says Rachel Blatt. "A lot of lives have crossed here. The generosity and support we feel is just overwhelming."