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Richmond's Ronald McDonald House, a refuge for out-of-town families with children in local hospitals, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month by expanding into MCV.


When Easton, their 6-month-old daughter, needed emergency surgery a few days after undergoing a liver transplant operation, Tonya and Troy Cox didn't find out through an impersonal, anxiety-inducing telephone call, but from a soft, friendly knock on their bedroom door and a familiar, hopeful face.

Even more important, they got to touch her before she was wheeled back into the OR.

The Roanoke-area couple has been spending the past few weeks in a comfy, dormlike room at Virginia Commonwealth University's MCV Hospitals. It is one of three small, homey suites that are a new venture between the hospital and the local Ronald McDonald House.

"I can't thank them enough for this," says Tonya Cox, 26, who donated part of her liver to her daughter last month. "It would be so hard for me to be at the hospitality house or a hotel right now."

Troy Cox, 27, adds that the room near MCV's pediatric intensive care unit also allows the couple to help comfort Easton. "I'd hate it if, when she wakes up and starts crying, neither one us was there," he says. "And if we need rest, we can come right here."

Like two other new bedroom-and-bathroom suites on the seventh floor, the Coxes' lodging features a trundle bed that serves as a sofa during the day, and a simple recliner. There's also a small refrigerator, microwave and coffee pot, and a table with two chairs. There's a small wash basin in the room, too, and a full-sized tub in the bathroom.

Nicely painted, wallpapered and curtained, the rooms even come complete with imitation hardwood floors, in contrast to the hospital's white linoleum tiles. The Ronald McDonald House Family Rooms also offer views of an outdoor play area where, today, no children are romping in the sunshine amid the colorful plastic playthings.

The tranquil surroundings help put distressed families at ease. "They're here at a point of real crisis," says Jeanette Winder, a clinical social worker at MCV and a Ronald McDonald House board member, who developed the family rooms concept. "It's something that's immediately available to families that are at a very high level of stress, and when their problem-solving skills are not at their best. They're not in any condition to find a hotel room, and it relieves a tremendous amount of pressure and strain on them."

The first room opened late last year, and families usually are given up to three days' use of them — more if there aren't other families who need them. The first and longest stay — by a Ronald McDonald House board member whose child ultimately did not survive a heart transplant — was 61 days.

"It's basically like you're going on vacation," Troy Cox says. "I hate to say it like that." He stayed at the Ronald McDonald House on Monument Avenue for about a week while his wife and daughter were prepping for the transplant surgery. Afterward, he joined them at the hospital, staying in the family suite.

"He'll have to go back home soon, for work," his wife adds. "But I'll stay here, maybe a month or more."

For Ronald McDonald House Executive Director Eileen Gilheany, the suites at MCV are a natural extension of her charity's nine-bedroom Monument Avenue house and an ideal way for the charity to mark its 20th year in Richmond.

Gilheany says the charity each year serves about 325 out-of-town families whose children are being treated at local hospitals. Most families come from rural areas within a few hours' drive of Richmond, but others, like the Coxes, come here from farther away for the specialized care they can get at advanced treatment centers such as MCV. The Ronald McDonald House also has served foreign families, including a visiting Filipino family whose daughter required surgery after their car accident on Interstate 95 this winter.

"They never made it to Disney World, but they were thrilled to see snow for the first time," Gilheany recalls. "We had a snowball fight out front, which got some of their nervous energy out."

The Monument Avenue house, itself, a cheery, elegantly comfortable place, remains the hub and heart of Ronald McDonald House activities. For a suggested (but not required) donation of $7.50 a day, families can eat, sleep, wash clothes in the basement laundry or rest while their unhospitalized children play in the enclosed courtyard. When they want to visit their children in the hospital, volunteer Bill Shaw, who has worked here since 1981, will drive them in the van recently donated by Pence Nissan.

"It's comfortable. Feels like home, and everybody's helpful," says Greg Briggs of Fredericksburg, whose daughter, Joli, is undergoing six weeks of radiation therapy in Richmond for a brain tumor. As he sits in the Ronald McDonald House kitchen drinking coffee with Shaw, Briggs watches quietly as his 2-year-old son, James, plays in pajamas on the floor, then rubs his tired eyes.

Back out in the lobby, the Ronald McDonald House guest book is filled with moving "thank you" and "God bless you" notes from departed families, but one recent entry stands out from the rest.

"I wish the world was like this place," it

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