“We checked into the Ronald McDonald House on March 5,” Ashton Whidden recalls. “Right before the world shut down.”
At 24 weeks pregnant, when Ashton’s water broke, she was sent in an ambulance from Lethbridge to Calgary. Ashton managed to hold on for another two weeks, before twin boys Hayes & Jude were born.
“It was packed full when we first arrived,” she remembers of the House. “There was so much community, tons of families, meals were provided by volunteer groups. I was wiping tears off my face during the tour,” she adds. “I had no idea how amazing it was.”
Ashton describes the House as full of energy. Her parents and in-laws were able to visit and join them for dinner. Ashton and her husband Tim had three older children back at home in Lethbridge, so her husband joined Ashton on the weekend, while her mother stayed there with her during the week. Their three older kids even came to stay for a few nights.
“We were one of the last families to check in,” she adds. “I am a huge believer that it was a miracle we got into the House before COVID.”
COVID-19 hit just as Hayes & Jude were fighting for their lives in the NICU. The boys didn’t even weigh two pounds and had just come out of their ‘honeymoon phase’, during which micropreemies are able to remain relatively stable on their own.
“They were crashing, and I just remember staring into space thinking, ‘what are we going to do now?’”
Ashton’s mother was no longer allowed at the hospital as her support person, and Tim had to remain home in Lethbridge.
“He had so much on his plate,” she explains. “He was trying to be a single Dad, work from home, do online schooling, hold down the fort; worried about the babies, and worried about me.”
“We never felt so alone because the pandemic shut down our support system,” she adds. “We didn’t have that army of care anymore, and so I was never more grateful for the House.”
Ashton says the staff and the other NICU mothers at the House got her through the whole experience.
“Night after night, the heaviness of that isolation, that’s a lot for someone to go through.”
“That community was crucial,” she says. “just to know there were people to listen and people who cared.”
Ashton describes the tone of the House really changing as families emptied out between the end of March and June.
“It was an eerie feeling to see people slowly leave the House, but I still managed to get quite close to the NICU Moms,” she says. “We would go for walks outside, and sit at a distance in the lobby, and just check in on each other. I am bonded for life with the Moms who were in the same situation.”
“With everything changing around us, the House was a constant – even more so, something we could count on to be there for us during the whole thing.”
RMHC Alberta’s Hero from Home fundraising campaign covered the cost of the Whidden’s 97-night stay, and the Whiddens say this kindness left them without words.
“We were speechless and filled with so much gratitude. We are forever touched and changed,” says Ashton. “We could not even begin to imagine what we would’ve done without the Ronald McDonald House, and we know our stay and this amazing charity could not exist without the kindness of generous donors.”
In June 2020, after 109 and 111 nights spent in the NICU, Hayes & Jude went home to meet their siblings in Lethbridge.
“I can’t even really describe what that meeting was like,” Ashton recalls. “That’s all we wanted, was to be together under one roof. The hope of a future with them at home was just everything. To wait for it that long made it that much sweeter and that much more amazing. We’ll never forget that moment; it was beautiful.”