Carter County couple volunteer as weekend managers at Ronald McDonald House

By Greg Miller
STAR STAFF
gmiller@starhq.com

  
Hampton residents Pam and Todd Smith are thrilled with the opportunity they have once a month to serve as weekend managers at the Ronald McDonald House in Johnson City.
   The couple's youngest daughter became "very ill" in November 1997, Pam said. "She was diagnosed with diabetes, but when they found it her sugar levels were dangerously high," Pam recalled. "She was in Keto-acidosis. When your blood sugar goes so high, your body is trying to hard to break down the sugars and can't, your body becomes poisonous. Her body had the equivalent of acetone in her body. She was very, very sick.
   "We first went over to Sycamore Shoals Hospital, and they did blood work. When they found out what it was, they immediately transported her to the Johnson City Medical Center, to the PICU with the Children's Hospital."
   Megan, who turned three years old while she was in ICU, was in the hospital for 23 days. Although Megan's sugar levels were slowly decreasing, two days after she entered JCMC she suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on her left side. "She couldn't talk," Pam said. "She couldn't use her left arm or her left leg.
   "At that point, one of the nurses who was working the night shift, said, 'You all need to get some rest. Have you thought about staying at the Ronald McDonald House?' We said, 'No,' because we always considered that for out-of-town people."
   The nurse called over to the Ronald McDonald House, and a room was available. "We ended up staying there for 21 days," Pam said. "It was such a blessing to be able to stay right there on the grounds of the hospital. We knew that if we needed to go to the hospital, all we had to do was run across the parking lot.
   "It was a blessing because it was a home away from home. You have your own room and your own bathroom facilities. You're welcome to the kitchen. You just make yourself at home. All that they ask in return is that you clean up after yourself, clean up your room and clean up if you use the kitchen. The people who were the house managers at that time made us feel so welcome."
   After Megan was released from JCMC, Todd and Pam "wanted to be able to help out in some way. A donation just didn't seem like enough. They request a $10 a night donation, and of course we did that, but we wanted to be able to help out in some way. It was over a year later that our lives had kind of gotten back to normal and we felt like we had the time and energy to put into it, and we started doing volunteer work." They began by volunteering about three hours each month, mopping and cleaning the bathrooms, etc. The couple enjoyed their volunteer work and hoped to eventually move into weekend management, an opportunity they had been looking for.
   "We go once a month on Friday night at 6 o'clock and stay until Sunday night at 6 o'clock," said Pam. "We have a room that we stay in. We oversee the operation of the house for the entire weekend. Our children are with us. They are always welcome to go with us. I hope that through all of this what it means to help other people and be there for other people will come through to them. Sometimes it's a lot of hard work, and there are a lot of demands on us as far as checking people in and checking people out, being there for the people who are staying there, being kind of a shoulder to lean on.
   "One of our main responsibilities is to make sure the kitchen is clean and make sure the house is presentable and looks well," Pam said.
   "We try to have one hot meal a day for the people who are staying over there," said Todd. "We try to have the afternoon meal brought by somebody, or we'll prepare something ourselves."
   Todd says he and Pam have been rewarded "by the number of families we come in contact with. We are a shoulder for them to lean on, but sometimes they lift us up as much as we lift them up. It's a big family.
   "The families who stay there are in a situation that we can really understand. When Megan was in the hospital sick, people would come up to us and say, 'I know what you're going through.' But in the back of our minds, we knew, 'No, you don't know what I'm going through.'
   "It's really helpful for us to be able to look a parent in the eye and say, 'I know what you're going through' and that parent know that we truly do know what they are going through."
   "Having gone through it, you do have more sympathy," remarked Pam. "You understand the pain that they're in...I like being able to know that we're helping someone in that capacity." Todd and Pam consider their work at the Ronald McDonald House a type of ministry.
   Faith in God and the support of a church family were big assets during Megan's stay in the hospital. "Without our church family, I can't even fathom trying to go through that," Todd said.
   "I can't even fathom going through it without faith in the Lord," Pam said. "The flip side of that is that the Lord completely healed her of all her complications. She is seven years old. She makes straight A's in school. She is a fireball, to say the least. She has no brain damage, and she is perfectly healthy. You don't see any sign of the paralysis that she had. She's very intelligent. She is very bright. Part of that comes from having to deal with her diabetes. She has handled it very well."
   "The Ronald McDonald House took part of our life away that we would have had to worry about every day," Todd said. "That was going home, washing, cleaning house. The Ronald McDonald House took that totally off of us so that we could concentrate on making sure that Megan was taken care of."'
   The rest afforded by the Ronald McDonald House is an important component of getting through a situation like Pam and Todd experienced. "If you're not getting any rest, there's no way you can focus on your child," Pam said. "You have to take care of your body with food, nourishment and rest. And the Ronald McDonald House does provide that."
   "When we first got involved as volunteers, we never dreamed it would become such a part of our family as it has," Todd said. "It's still a second home. We can go over there right now and sit down with the folks and have dinner with them and enjoy it just as if it were our own home and feel just as at home from it."
   The parents of the children who are in the hospital provide lots of encouragement for each other, according to Todd. "We usually try to do a security walk-through about 10 o'clock at night. It never fails that there's a group of the parents in the kitchen area, which is the biggest area in the house, and they are comforting each other. They do as much or more for one another than we can do for them."
   Pam and Todd, who attend the Roan Street Church of God, have served in their current capacity at the house for more than three years. They hope to leave as much of a positive impression of the facility on those they are serving as they received while they were staying at the house. "I'd like for the people who come through that house be so touched by what the house could do that it's not a job to give some of their time, but it's something that they desire to do," Todd said.
   Pam sums up the couple's experience as volunteers at the facility. "It's a lot of hard work, but we really enjoy it," she said.