Madison Dockendorf is just like any other baby, except she was born 16 weeks prematurely.
Weighing 2 pounds, 2 ounces at birth, she was considered a micro preemie and needed a ventilator to breathe and another device to help keep her lungs open. She didn’t open her eyes until she was seven weeks out of the womb.
“They kept reassuring me she was going to be all right, but there was a lot of uncertainty at the beginning,” said Betty Dockendorf, Madison’s mother.
She had to be flown by helicopter from Hays Medical Center to give birth at Wesley Medical Center. While she was in Wichita, she stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Sleepy Hollow, and became the Wichita charity’s 25,000th family served.
The house, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, took care of Dockendorf for 11 weeks while she was in and out of the hospital caring for Madison. She left Friday, after checking into the facility May 1.
When her husband had to leave Wichita to take care of her other two children in their hometown of Russell, Dockendorf said it was a “lonely situation,” one which the Ronald McDonald House helped remedy.
“You spend all day with these women in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and then we all walk back to the house together afterward,” Dockendorf said. “It really does become a family. We rely on each other and support each other.”
Madison is eating steadily now and breathes on her own, her mother said.
“We have been very, very lucky with the progress she has made,” Dockendorf said. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.”
Dockendorf said the people at the Ronald McDonald House helped her see that light and get through the weeks of being cooped up in hospitals.
“They kept my sanity,” she said. “It was overwhelming to have the kindness of so many people.”
‘It’s their house’
Susan Smythe, CEO and executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Wichita, said about 55 to 65 percent of families that stay at the organization’s two Wichita houses have babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, though the house also serves cancer patients, trauma victims and other hospital-bound children up to 21 years old, in addition to their families.
She said the house provides a refuge for people who live at least 30 miles away from town, a place where they can stretch out and relax away from the sterility of a hospital setting.
“It’s a lonely feeling, being in a strange place by yourself,” Smythe said. “If you’re in a hotel, there’s no one there to greet you. Here we care about you and ask you how your day’s been.”
Wichita is home to two Ronald McDonald Houses – one in Sleepy Hollow, by Wesley, and one in Midtown, by Via Christi on St. Francis. The two have served families from 45 states and 12 countries in their 30 years in Wichita.
In the living room of the Midtown house, families walk in and out laughing and talking with each other. They sleep on donated beds and sit on donated sofas. The facilities are open every day for 24 hours, so there is always someone on-site to help when needed, Smythe said.
“It’s their house, they can come and go as they please,” Smythe said. “We know when they’re coming, but we don’t know quite when they’re going to leave. They can stay as long as they need to.”
Each house has 10 bedrooms, each with a private bathroom. Kitchen, laundry room and Wi-Fi are available as well. She said a typical stay at the house lasts about a week.
Families are asked to contribute $15 a night, but no one is turned away if they can’t afford to pay.
Many volunteers serve at the houses – from bank presidents to Boy Scouts, she said. She said the houses survive thanks to volunteers and local and national sponsors.
“We have to have volunteers in here all the time – they’re big houses,” Smythe said. “All of our volunteers are very down-to-earth.”
Though she said she is glad to be able to leave the Ronald McDonald House, Dockendorf said she will continue to keep in touch with the people she met there.
“This place has been a godsend,” she said.