Family Stories

Isabelle's Journey

When Candice was pregnant with her second child, she could not have been more excited. At her nineteen week appointment, she and her husband, Mark, and their daughter, Victoria, found out that they were going to add a second girl to their family. They left that appointment celebrating and sharing the news. Then they received a phone call that began a journey that would lead them to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh.

Just a few days later, Candice and Mark met with their physician. He told them that the sonogram showed that their daughter had multiple heart defects. What they didn’t know was the extent of these defects.

Candice’s care needed to be transferred to a hospital more than an hour away. There, they would be able to take care of her daughter immediately following her birth. After traveling back and forth for months, Isabelle was born on May 24th.

One week later, Isabelle was scheduled to have her first heart surgery but complications arose. It was then Candice and Mark were presented with the idea of Isabelle having a heart transplant.

At less than a month old, Isabelle was flown to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC to be evaluated. The doctors deemed her a complicated case and it took them a while to figure out what they were going to do. To meet the qualifications for a heart transplant, she would first need another surgery. This surgery, called the Norwood, is a three-stage heart surgery that will span over the next two to three years of her life. The first step was done immediately and went extremely well. The physicians and nurses were thrilled with her recovery. Some nurses even commented that she was recovering faster than any other Norwood patient they have seen. Because of her progress, Candice and Mark could now hold their little girl. It was the first time. Even big sister Victoria got in on the action.

The second step in the procedure also went well and Isabelle will wait until the age of two-three for the final step. Her parents have been told that as Isabelle gets older,  a heart transplant may be needed.

During this entire process, Candice and Mark stayed at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh. The Ronald McDonald House gave them the opportunity to be by Isabelle’s side every step of the way and share in every milestone their courageous newborn daughter achieved.

Candice stayed at the House every day and Mark drove to Pittsburgh from New York on the weekends with Victoria. This meant Candice could spend quality time with her older daughter as well. While at the House, they were able to have meals together and one evening, Candice and Victoria attended a movie night which was hosted by a volunteer group for all of the families to enjoy. It meant so much to both mom and daughter to have these moments together.

After three months, Isabelle was strong enough to be transferred to a hospital closer to home.  They are excited because this means they are one step closer to their goal of all being home and living under one roof. But until that day comes, they will continue to cross each bridge of their journey just as they did at the Ronald McDonald House, together, as a family.

Kendra and her mom in the RMHC Pittsburgh Dining Room

Getting Back to Being a Kid Again

Born with Cystic Fibrosis, eleven-year-old Kendra was no longer able to do the things that other kids her age could do. It was difficult for her to even just laugh and run. She was no longer attending school. Kendra needed a double lung transplant and after waiting 18 months, she was going to get one.

In January of 2017, Kendra’s family received the call that they had been waiting for.  It was time for her transplant. She and her family left their home in West Virginia and drove three hours to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for the 12-hour procedure. Following the successful surgery, her parents settled in just steps away from the hospital at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh.“This place is wonderful. You can get a shower and wash your clothes,” said Kayla, Kendra’s mom. “We are blessed that there is a place like this to help families,” she added.

After just a few weeks in the hospital, Kendra was able to join her mom at the Ronald McDonald House. She continued going to weekly physician appointments and therapy sessions but during her free time she enjoyed the activities at the House. Her favorite was the Pet Therapy Program. She particularly looked forward to visits from Oreo, one of the Charity’s many therapy dogs.

Kayla remembers the day her daughter went into the Toy Forest. The Toy Forest is a new feature at the Ronald McDonald House that is designed to bring comfort to the kids and their siblings staying at the charity by walking into an enchanting forest and choosing a toy that makes them smile. “It was so magical for her to go in there and pick anything she wanted,” Kayla said.

While at the Ronald McDonald House, Kendra continued to progress. She even began eating. Her mother credits the Ronald McDonald House with that accomplishment. “It was so comfortable there and she could relax and eat without the beeping machines around her,” said Kayla.

Just six weeks after surgery, this bubbly 11-year-old was able to go home. With a smile on her face, she said that she can’t wait to walk her dog Duke, visit her family and play with her brother and sister.



kids with ronald

Keeping Families Close

Luke has needed medical care his entire life. He was born with a disease that prevented his lungs from developing. He literally outgrew them. His medical care is in Pittsburgh, 300 miles from home.

Luke and his family have been staying at the Ronald McDonald House since his double lung transplant six years ago. Sometimes they stay for one night, other times for days or weeks at a time.  For their family, RMHC has become so much more than a place to stay. It is a place that keeps their family together when Luke needs to be far from home. It is a place that makes the healing process a whole lot easier.

Dear Friends:

Ronald McDonald House is a place where I can relax before and after I have to see my doctors. We stay at the Ronald McDonald House when we drive to Pittsburgh for appointments, procedures, tests, and infusions. My family stays there when I am in the hospital. It is important to me because I love my family and they make me feel better when they are close by.

Ronald McDonald House is a place where we can sleep when I have to come to Pittsburgh to get better. We either drive there for 6 hours or we fly there. It feels like my home in Pittsburgh. It is fun at the Penthouse because you can play video games, watch TV, read books, go on the computers, and talk with the staff. Ronald McDonald sits in the front of the building when you walk in. I have been staying here since I was 9 years old and got my double lung transplant. Sometimes we are only there a few days, but our longest time there was 101 days. Some years I am at the Ronald McDonald house more than I am at home.

My best memories are when we get free tickets to the Pirates games, Steelers games, and the Penguins games. Sometimes you get to meet the Steelers players and the Penguin players. I also get to meet other kids who have heart transplants, kidney transplants, intestine transplants, liver transplants and lung transplants. I like to meet other kids like me.

– Luke, age 15




christmas in july

Far From Home, A Family Finds Hope

They say home is where the heart is and for Jose, Marta and Elena, they have found it at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh.

Marta and Jose have spent years traveling the world searching for help for their daughter, Elena. They have met with physicians and attended countless conferences but were unable to find any help for their daughter. Then one day everything changed with a phone call that brought them half-way around the world.

Marta and Jose live in a small region in Spain with their 11-year-old daughter Elena. When Elena was born, she was progressing like every other child.  At age 5, Marta noticed her very verbal daughter’s speech was digressing. She took Elena to her physician who referred her to a specialist where she was diagnosed her with Sanfilippo B Syndrome, a rare genetic disease that slowly affects the brain.

Due to the rarity of this disease, it was difficult for Marta and Jose to find treatment for their daughter. Their search literally took them around the world. It was on one of their quests when they met a physician who was speaking at a conference. This physician invited Elena to be evaluated for a possible transplant but to their devastation she was not a candidate.

Marta and Jose were not giving up. They continued their search but to no avail. Seven years later their break came when that same physician they met years earlier asked them to be part of a clinical trial at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Marta and Jose were ecstatic. Finally, some hope for this incurable disease that was continuing to take away more of their child every day.

When they arrived in Pittsburgh, they had no idea how long they would be here. First Elena had to be evaluated and accepted into the trial. To their relief, she was.

It was then they were introduced to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh.  “We are very lucky to stay here,” said Marta. “We had to leave our family, friends, home and jobs behind,” she added.

Marta, Jose and Elena have been at the Ronald McDonald House for nearly a year. They have made it their home. Marta is often found in the community kitchen cooking wonderful meals and they are always participating in the activities hosted by the volunteers. They have become friends with the other families. When their family came to visit from Spain last summer, they were so impressed.

Elena continues to participate in the trial. They have seen improvement in some of her mobilities but more importantly the toxins have stopped building in her brain. Her journey though is far from over.

“There are so many worries when your son or daughter is ill. When someone helps you, you are so grateful. Ronald McDonald House will be in my heart for the rest of my life,” Marta said.

family picture
Michael and Marissa with Ronald
Steelers Game

A Family’s Journey

Eleven years ago, the Vestal family gave birth to their first baby, a beautiful and healthy little girl named Mia.  Things went so smoothly with their first child, that three years later, they decided to have a second baby – this time around things did not go as planned.

Michael Vestal Jr. was born with a liver malfunction that can cause fatal reactions to protein exposure.  The Vestals were told that each day with Michael should be considered a gift and that if he ever grew strong enough, the only hope for survival would be a liver transplant.  The Vestals spent a great amount of time shielding Michael from the outside world as his compromised immune system made most normal outings extremely dangerous.  For a while, the Vestals were able to manage Michael’s disease by monitoring his diet but they knew this was only temporary and that eventually their son would need a transplant.

In 2011, Michael and Mary Grace had their third child, Marisa.  Prior to the birth of their daughter, they visited many doctors to find out what their chances were that they would have another child with the same disease as Michael’s. They were told 25%. Shortly after Marisa’s birth, she was diagnosed with the same disease. Both Marisa and her brother were placed on the wait list for a liver transplant and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC was the only place they wanted to go.

On January 2, 2015, Michael and Mary Grace received a phone call that would change their life –  their son had a liver match. Michael needed to get to the hospital. He and his father flew to Pittsburgh by helicopter while Mary Grace and her two daughters drove by car in a snowstorm.

Michael’ surgery and recovery went well. He recovered with his entire family by his side. Michael, Mary Grace, Mia and Marisa stayed at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh.

“It was such a relief to have everyone close and it was financially very helpful,” said Mary Grace.

After two months at the Ronald McDonald House, the Vestals returned to Boston. In July of that same year, they received a second life-changing phone call. Marisa had a liver match. “We received the call while we were on vacation,” said Mary Grace. The family hurried to return home, repack and head back to Pittsburgh.  Immediately, they called the Ronald McDonald House.

Just like her big brother, Marisa received her transplant with her family by her side as the Vestals once again stayed at the Ronald McDonald House.

“When we came back to the House we saw families who were still here from when we were here the first time,” said Mary Grace.

Marisa’s surgery and recovery also went well. It did not take long before she could join her family at the Ronald McDonald House.

Although far from home, the Vestal family had no trouble keeping busy. There were fun activities hosted by volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House and through the generosity of many donors, they spent many days enjoying outings in the city.

By September, everyone was home and back to school. A few months later, Marisa encountered a complication that brought her back to Children’s Hospital and the Vestal family to the Ronald McDonald House.  Following a lengthy stay, everyone is home once again.

Through the hardest time in her life, Mary Grace has said that RMHC Pittsburgh has been her one constant – a safe, happy and comfortable house for children.

“The staff at RMHC is your family, your therapists and your support group all in one,” she added.