Monday, December 29, 2014

Ronnie Polaneczky: It began in Philly

IT HAS been 14 weeks since Alden Li was born, and 13 weeks since his parents, Jason and Sophie, learned that the heart he was born with has doomed him to a very short life.

Unless he has a heart transplant, they have been told, he will die.

Since then, he has been in Children's Hospital of Philadelphia awaiting a donor organ. His wavering condition already has required four surgeries to keep blood moving throughout his 7-pound body.

Jason and Sophie are waiting here with him, their lives back home in Ellicott City, Md., on indefinite hold. Sophie has been trying to keep up with her MBA studies, but it has been difficult for her to concentrate on anything except saving Alden's life.

And while Jason's work as a programmer allows him to telecommute most days, he's also using up a pool of 400 vacation hours his co-workers donated so that he can be with Sophie during the most trying days they've known.

What has been an unexpected blessing is the comfort they've found at Ronald McDonald House in West Philly, a place that most parents of healthy children are lucky enough never to have entered.

That house, which opened 30 years ago tomorrow, was the first of its kind in the world.

And it - and the hundreds that followed - exists because two people realized Philly's rowhouse legacy of neighbor helping neighbor could be tapped to help families in need.

"Jimmy, do you know what life is like for families with a hospitalized child? " Dr. Audrey Evans was asking Jim Murray. "What if they're from out of town, and they have to stay for weeks? "

It was early 1974, and Evans and Murray were having one of what had become regular conversations about sick kids.

Evans, then 49, is a brainy, dignified, Welsh-born oncologist at Children's Hospital who, 30 years later, is still obsessed with pediatric cancer's causes and treatment.

Childless and driven, she was putting the hospital's pediatric-cancer-research-and-treatment services on the map.

Murray, then 33, is an exuberant, rowhouse-Philly guy, then handling publicity for the Philadelphia Eagles under brash owner Leonard Tose. A devout Catholic whose wife was "popping out kids every two minutes," Murray was wild about family, Philly and football.

The selflessness of another Philadelphia doctor had brought them together.

Several years before, Kim Hill , the 3-year-old daughter of Eagles tight end Fred Hill, had been diagnosed with leukemia. The response from the entire Delaware Valley to a fund-raiser honchoed by Hill's friend Stan Lane had been sensational.

Over the next few years, that initial extravaganza grew into a massive nonprofit called Eagles Fly for Leukemia that eventually raised $10 million for national leukemia services.

Though Leonard Tose heavily bankrolled the effort, he, like Murray, had deep Philly roots. Tose wanted to do something to directly benefit sick kids right here at home.

"That was typical of Leonard - he always had to do more," says Murray of the flamboyant trucking tycoon whose hard drinking, spending and gambling left him destitute by the time he died last year at 88. "I don't care what anyone says, his biggest addiction was his generosity. "

Tose sent Murray to St. Christopher's Hospital, where Kim was being treated, to ask her doctor, Laurence Naiman, what the hospital needed from the Eagles.

"I'll never forget that meeting," recalls Murray. "Dr. Naiman says, 'Look, we need everything, but there's someone who needs help more. Her name's Audrey Evans, and she's head of oncology at Children's Hospital. ' "

Children's, he said, was moving from Center City into a new building on Penn's campus. But it had run out of money to complete Evans' oncology wing.

"I couldn't believe it," says Murray. "Dr. Naiman didn't know if Leonard was offering him five bucks or a million dollars, and he tells me, 'Children's needs it more. ' But those were the days before cutthroat medical competition. And it was just pure Philly - like, 'We're all in this together. ' "

Subsequent meetings with Evans (who, swears Murray, initially didn't know who the Eagles were; she disagrees) yielded enough Tose donations and fund-raising appearances by players such as Eagles quarterback Roman Gabriel to complete the hospital's oncology floor.

It was even named the Eagles Wing, in honor of its million-dollar benefactors.

You'd think that would be enough for Evans. But that would be underestimating the indefatigable doctor, who, even as she nears her 80th birthday, says things like, "I've been doing my research for 50 years, and I don't plan to stop until I've got all my children cured. "

She longed for a kind of unisex YMCA, she told Murray back then, an inexpensive place where out-of-town parents could stay, together, while their children were being treated. The city's YMCAs and YWCAs had no coed rooms, so parents couldn't be together at a time when they needed each other most. And hotels were costly, especially for those whose kids needed long hospitalizations.

So parents slept in hospital lobbies, or in their cars. They ate out of vending machines. And their exhaustion and loneliness drained the energy they needed to stay strong and hopeful for their kids.

"I said, 'Jimmy, I need a building,' " recalls Evans of that conversation, 30 years ago. "A quiet place where parents can rest, away from the stress of the hospital, and have a cup of tea. "

The image gave Murray, a self-described emotional Irishman - "I'm a big crier," he says - a football-sized lump in his throat. He thought of his childhood in West Philly where, if you got sick, your neighbors made soup, did your laundry and watched your kids - "and without singing 'How Great I Art' about it, either. "

"Audrey," he said adamantly, "this is Philly. We're a city of neighborhoods. You don't want an anonymous building. You want a house, where people can laugh and cry together. "

Evans paused. Her dream of a bare-bones rest stop for parents had suddenly morphed into something more intimate and convivial - and far more Philly - than she'd imagined.

"Okay then, Jimmy," she told her friend. "Go get me a house. "

And just like that, says Murray, two miracles happened.

The first occurred when Evans put Murray in touch with local builder John Canuso, whose daughter, Babe, was being treated for leukemia at Children's. Canuso helped Murray find a seven-bedroom home at 4035 Spruce St. that had been occupied by medical students. Canuso then retrofitted the place for free.

The second came in the form of green "shamrock shakes," a local, St. Patrick's Day-inspired McDonald's promotion dreamed up by Don Tuckerman, president of Elkman Advertising, which represented local McDonald's owners. Murray asked Tuckerman if the owners would donate, say, 25 cents per shake to the house effort, in exchange for his supplying Eagles players to promote their sale.

Tuckerman lobbed a counteroffer: McDonald's would donate all the shake proceeds if the new building were named the Ronald McDonald House.

"For that kind of dough, I told them they could call it the Burger House if they wanted," Murray laughs. "But it turned out that the McDonald's name was perfect. What kid would feel too scared to go to a place called Ronald McDonald House? We couldn't have picked it better. "

And so the world's first Ronald McDonald House was born on Oct. 15, 1974, opening with a gigantic block party that snarled neighborhood traffic for hours. Kim Hill - now in remission - attended with her family, as did Tose and the Eagles, McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and Mayor Frank Rizzo, who was impressed by Canuso's rehab work.

"Looks like a goombah did it," Rizzo nodded approvingly at the paneling that covered the walls.

And that evening, inaugural house manager Judy Blore welcomed its first families, who finally had a place to rest their heads while on their lonely and frightening medical odysseys far from home.

Over the next 30 years, the house grew to a $2.2 million-per-year, 44-room operation whose eight full-time staffers and 250 volunteers serve 1,766 families per year.

Its basic structure - a partnership between local communities and McDonald's owners - was replicated 238 times in 24 countries. And the McDonald's corporation expanded the concept, creating Ronald McDonald House Charities, a foundation serving 10 million families a year.

Not that Murray or Evans had any idea back in 1974 of the strength or trajectory of the arrow they'd shot from Philly into the future of children's medical care.

"We had no big master plan," Murray says. "There was just such a need. You could see it in parents' faces when Judy was there to greet them at the end of a tough day.

"That house came right out of everyone's hearts," says Murray. "That's why it worked." *

E-mail: polaner@phillynews.com

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