Home away from home

Mother and daughter sitting together.
When Maggie Lowe, left, was diagnosed with a rare lung disease at six months old, her mother, Emily, right, felt fortunate to live so close to top-notch medical care. Realizing that out-of-towners requiring medical care for a family member don’t have that advantage was what inspired her to volunteer with Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Everyone who gets involved with the work of Ronald McDonald House Charities has their “why” story. Board member Emily Lowe’s started 17 years ago when her first child struggled to breathe.

When Maggie first showed symptoms at six months old, Lowe took her to UPMC Children’s Hospital, where several weeks of tests, including a lung biopsy revealed she had a rare disease called neuroendocrine cell hyperplasia of infancy. Her lungs were partially blocked, meaning she’d require additional oxygen 24/7 until she was 4. Maggie endured several hospital stays stretching up to 10 days at a time. 

Still Lowe, who moved into her Osage Road home the year Maggie was born, felt lucky. She knew living in Pittsburgh meant she had easy access to the caliber of care her daughter needed. She also knew that for some kids, that’s not the case.  

“Not to minimize (Maggie’s condition), but it’s not even close to what some sick kids have,” said Lowe. “They have cancer. They need a liver transplant. They need heart surgery. If you don’t live near a place that does all that, you have to pack up your stuff and not do your job and get there. Can you afford to get there? Are you supposed to come to Pittsburgh and rent a hotel? Twenty nights in a hotel is not exactly cheap.”

Ronald McDonald House Charities logoFor families of such children, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh and Morgantown provides a home away from home at no required cost while the patient receives medical care. Locally, the house is connected to Children’s; in West Virginia, it’s across the street from J.W. Ruby Memorial. In addition to shelter for families who come from all over the world, it offers meals, laundry services and just about anything else a family could need when all their attention needs to be focused on helping their loved one heal. 

Lowe, who joined the organization as a board member 12 years ago, appreciates how it addresses the many details of everyday life no parent of a sick child should have to stress over—everything from a comfortable place to sleep to a toy closet for their siblings. 

“When you’re initially hit with the shock potentially of having to deal with your child being sick, those aren’t the things that are immediately at the forefront of your mind,” she said. “It’s nice to know that somebody else is thinking about those.”

Eleanor Reigel, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh and Morgantown CEO, said Lowe’s experience with Maggie gave her firsthand knowledge of exactly what families need. 

“If we’re talking about different things we want to put in place in the house, she’s going to take a step back and think, ‘OK, I was a parent with a sick child. Does this make sense? Will this be helpful?’” said Reigel.

In addition to Maggie (who is fine now, her mother is happy to report), Lowe is also mother to Brady, 15, and Alison, 12. She works as a corporate finance attorney with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and her skill set allows her to bring a unique perspective to the Ronald McDonald House, Reigel said. 

“She’s extremely intelligent and she is very thoughtful and really thinks about the whole picture,” she said. “I just cannot say enough about her contributions. She understands clearly and firsthand how fortunate we all are on many levels and she wants to give back.” 

For Lowe, that means understanding how a child’s illness can impact every facet of a family’s life and anticipating ways to meet as many needs as possible.   

“They’re going through a really tough time. If we can make it so that it’s less stressful on the parents, less stressful on the other kids, less stressful financially, emotionally, physically, anything, we should do that.”

For information about a wide array of volunteer opportunities at Ronald McDonald House Charities—everything from making hot meals for families to decorating their room doors—or to learn more about ways to donate, including wish lists for the houses and turning your hobby into a fundraiser, visit rmhcpgh-mgtn.org.

Photography by John Schisler