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Sickest children's families find 'oasis' in UK hospital

Walls of soft green, gentle music playing ever so quietly, hardwood floors and stuffed easy chairs are all part of a newly renovated waiting room at University of Kentucky Children's Hospital which provides families with much needed stress relief.

“No matter how tense you are you just come in here and kind of relax,” said Shirley Holt, who was resting recently in the newly opened Ronald McDonald House family room with her daughter-in-law, Kimber. Her grandson, Gabriel, was being treated in the neo-natal intensive care unit down the hall.

Born prematurely, his lungs were undeveloped and he was transferred to UK from a hospital in Danville. Mom, Kimber Holt said “this is the main place we stay when we aren't with him.”

“It's kind of got a homey feel,” said Shirley Holt, whose real home is hours away in Casey County.

Opened last week, the room served 78 families who have loved ones in the neo-natal and pediatric intensive care units.

Creating a living-room-like atmosphere was the goal of the room renovation that cost $50,000 and was three years in the making, said Sarah Warner, executive director of the Lexington Ronald McDonald House.

Ronald McDonald House Charities, known for creating home-away-from homes for families of hospitalized children, created their first family room in 1992. The Lexington group relied on financial support from the national organization to create this room.

“We really wanted the room to be transformative,” said Warner, “it should be like going into an oasis from the intensive care nightmare that you are going through.”

Volunteers who staff the room are trained to listen and recognize when families may need referrals to other hospital services, such as a social worker.

“They are here as volunteers and we don't expect them to solve a problem but we hope they can refer people,” Warner said, adding the specially trained volunteers fill 68 monthly shifts. Several more volunteers are needed, said Judi Martin, the hospital's child life coordinator.

The room is opened from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 hours on Saturday and Sunday. If volunteers aren't available, she said, the room must be locked.

After years of working with families through ministries, volunteer Renee Pryor was pleased to be a part of the new effort.

“This place is so comfortable and so homey it's really a blessing to have a place to go any time your child is in the hospital,” said Pryor, who said she tries to concentrate on making sure everyone is comfortable and the coffee is warm.

It's a big departure from where families could stay before, said Martin. Before the renovation, the room was more like an airport waiting lounge where you'd be lucky to find a magazine without missing pages, she said. A big change is the absence of a television. Instead of a set hanging from a ceiling, individual DVD players and handheld electronic games are available that people can use with ear phones so the peaceful atmosphere isn't disturbed.

The room is really a place for family members to rest and recharge.

Ramona Mills could physically feel the difference after a few minutes in the room last week. Suffering from high blood pressure, the worries of tending her 4 year-old nephew, Braden Middleton, who is recovering from heart surgery, had her head pounding. A few minutes flipping through a gossip magazine while sinking into a dusty blue couch had eased her the throbbing in her temples and left her better prepared to help tend the needs of the boy.

“I've got to take care of myself,” she said, knowing that's the best way to take care of him.