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210km for a home away from home

A chance meeting in an elevator at Ronald McDonald House in Wellington has lead to an unbreakable bond for two Masterton māmā and their sons – and a mammoth fundraising effort for their “home away from home”.

Holly McKay and Ryleigh Clode – accompanied by their combined six children – are participating in this month’s House to House Challenge: Hoping to clock in 210kms worth of exercise, with all proceeds going towards Ronald McDonald House Charities New Zealand [RMHC].

RMHC’s four houses, based in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, provide accommodation, respite and practical day-to-day care for families with tamariki staying in hospital away from their hometown. Throughout March, RMHC is encouraging whānau to “run, walk, cycle or swim” either 2.1, 21, or 210km: Representing the average distance families travel to stay at RMHC houses to be near their children.

In 2021, Holly and Ryleigh stayed, between them, close to five months – including during Level 4 lockdown – in RMHC house near Wellington Hospital, having given birth to premature baby boys.

Oliver McKay and Kaiden McRae, born at 25 and 30 weeks, respectively, battled their way back to health in the neonatal intensive care unit [NICU], their mums firmly at their bedsides. When not at the hospital, their parents stayed across the road in self-contained apartments, and were nurtured by the RMHC staff, receiving home-cooked meals, housekeeping help, and even toys and activities for their older children.

While at the house, Holly and Ryleigh “ran into each other in the lift” and quickly bonded once back in Masterton – and have “talked every day for the last two-and-a-half years”.

Now their preemie sons have grown into rambunctious toddlers, the fire-forged friends have joined forces to support RMHC, by “getting in as many kilometres as possible”.

“We thought we’d go the whole hog, and do the full 210km. People travel a long way to Ronald McDonald House to be with their kids – we were there with mums who’d come all the way from Napier and New Plymouth, so we wanted to do it for them,” Holly said.

“It’s a lot, but we’re committed to it now!

“Ronald McDonald House took so much stress away from us during such a difficult time. Pretty much everything is done for you. You don’t have to focus on doing the vacuuming when your baby is fighting for life in hospital.

“Without Ronald McDonald, I don’t know what we’d have done.”

A rough start to life

About halfway through her pregnancy, Holly developed HELLP Syndrome, a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication – “high blood pressure on steroids” – and was transferred to Wellington Hospital for monitoring.

“After three days, they were, ‘we have to get baby out now.’”

Little Ollie was born in July 2021 at 25 weeks and 3 days, weighing just 615 grams. He stayed at the NICU until November, where he fought a raft of health conditions, including meconium aspiration, chronic lung disease [CLD], necrotising enterocolitis [NEC – intestinal inflammation], retinopathy of prematurity [ROP – an eye condition], and the heart condition patent ductus arteriosus [PDA].

“He loved those acronyms!” Holly said.

“You name it, he had it. He had about 10 blood transfusions, and was on and off a ventilator for weeks. On the whole, he had a 60 per cent chance of survival.

“He was very sick for a long time.”

Ryleigh, a paediatric nurse at Wairarapa Hospital, went into pre-term labour – while working a night shift – at 27 weeks. Though she was given medication that successfully stopped the labour, her waters broke at 29 weeks, and she was taken to Wellington Hospital by Life Flight. Due to high infection risk, Kaiden was delivered, via emergency caesarean, at 30 weeks and 4 days.

Kaiden, who was 1.3kg at birth, spent five weeks in the NICU. He and Ryleigh were eventually transferred to Wairarapa Hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit [SCBU] – where they re-connected with Holly and Ollie.

A long stay

Holly and Ryleigh stayed a combined total of 150 nights at the Wellington RMHC house, with their partners mostly commuting between Masterton and Wellington.

Their older children – Cooper [6] and Elena McKay [4], and Ngawai [6] and Alex McRae [5] – were initially able to spend some weekends with their parents at the House. However, the children weren’t able to enter the building once lockdown began in August – and Holly was separated from her older two until Level 3 restrictions were lifted in early September.

Also, due to covid restrictions, only one parent could visit the NICU at a time – which both women found “very traumatic”.

“It was so hard. I don’t think Kaiden’s dad and I were able to lay eyes on our baby together until we were back in Masterton,” Ryleigh said.

“One time, Ollie took a bad turn, and they had to [intubate] him – and I was there on my own, while my husband was across the road,” Holly added. “It was awful not being able to look after our baby together.”

However, the “incredible support” they received from RMHC helped soften some of the blows. Having their own kitchen and bathroom spaces, meals delivered to their door – some of which were catered by community groups, families, and businesses – “a big cupboard of snacks”, a weekly cleaning service, and friendly and welcoming staff” made all the difference.

“The ladies on the front desk were wonderful. They’d always say hello and ask how our babies were doing,” Holly said.

“They’ve got a security guard at the front door. When you’ve got a baby in NICU, you’re [expressing breastmilk] every three hours, so you can be running over the road with your milk at 11pm – and knowing you’ve got someone looking after you feels so much safer.”

Two years on

Since his NICU stay, Ollie has had several surgeries – including to remove a hernia and insert a gastronomy feeding tube in his abdomen. Despite some residual health issues, he is a typical “wild two-year-old”.

“He walks, talks, runs, packs tantrums. He’s a sassy little toad,” Holly said.

“He’s frigging awesome.”

Kaiden’s journey, though his time at NICU was “fairly textbook”, has been more challenging. He contracted respiratory syncytial virus [RSV] in December 2022, and has since caught re-occuring respiratory illnesses.

As well as lung damage from the RSV and “sheer number of infections”, he has struggled with feeding, and is scheduled to have a feeding tube surgically inserted

Compounding the struggle for Ryleigh has been Kaiden’s many trips to the Wairarapa Hospital paediatric ward – her workplace.

“But I do think Kaiden’s journey has changed my practice as a nurse. When I see families of preemie babies come through our SCBU, I know what they’re going through – I have more empathy and understanding.”

And Holly’s loyal support – the friends live five houses down from one another – and Kaiden’s positive attitude help keep her afloat.

“Nothing much gets him down – he takes it all in his stride.

“Preemie babies are born fighting and they don’t stop. They’ve been fighting from day one. It humbles you how well they cope.”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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