Like most parents, Chad and Christine Ballard light up when they talk about their son, Ezekiel, who will turn 1 on New Year’s Eve.
“He’s amazing,” said Christine, eyes smiling behind her mask. “He is the happiest, brightest and cheeriest boy ever.”
Chad chimed in next.
“He’s so full of life and has so much joy,” Chad said. “And I don’t just say that because he’s our son.”
But over the course of Ezekiel’s life, the Ballards have faced challenges that few parents could imagine. Born at 28 weeks, Ziek spent the first eight months of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit near the Ballard’s home outside San Antonio, Texas. He was able to come home for five weeks before being readmitted to pediatric intensive care, and during that time, he had more than a dozen surgeries, including an open-heart procedure in August. Realizing that their son needed a more specialized level of care than what was available in Texas, the family put in a request to transfer Ziek to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Pete.
Things happened quickly after that.
“We were given three days’ notice to leave everything behind in Texas, including our jobs and our home,” Christine said. “And three days isn’t much time to relocate.”
That’s where Ronald McDonald House Charities Tampa Bay stepped in. Since arriving in November, the nonprofit put the Ballards up in a hotel until space opened up in one of its three houses located on the All Children’s campus. Houses are currently operating at 25 percent capacity due to Covid-19, which has forced the charity to find new ways to serve families in need.
“The pandemic is a challenge for everyone but it doesn’t stop child illness from happening,” said Joe Citro, the director of development for RMHC Tampa Bay. “It still continues and we’ll still continue to take care of these families in any way we can for however long they need it.”
One of the biggest challenges has been financial, and RMHC – like many nonprofits – is figuring out how to do more with less. On top of providing hotel rooms to families like the Ballards, they’ve also taken on additional expenses in terms of food. Prior to Covid, community groups would step in to prepare meals for the families staying in the houses. With that no longer possible, RMHC has launched an emergency meal fund to help cover some of those costs, and Citro estimates the nonprofit is still able to provide more than 700 meals per week to its families.
By shouldering some of the costs surrounding food and finances – estimated to save families about $1,000 a week – they’re able to be more present for their child during a time when they need their parents most.
“Our goal is to make sure that families can focus on what matters most – their child,” Citro said.
For the Ballards, having a place to stay that’s just a two-minute walk from Ziek’s room has been “a godsend” and has allowed them to devote all their time to their son and remain in constant communication with the team of medical professionals caring for him. That wasn’t always easy when they were still in Texas, Christine recalled. Ziek’s hospital was 45 minutes from their home, and she and Chad would make the drive every night after work. Due to Covid safety protocols, only one parent could see him at a time so they’d take turns – one hour on, one hour off.
“We had a lot of parent guilt because we couldn’t stay with him,” Christine said. “Now that we’re here, we can pop over and spend hours with him at a time.”
The Ballards’ days revolve around Ziek. They wake up early and one of them heads to the hospital – again, one at a time to limit the spread of the virus – to meet the staff coming in at shift change and catch up on any new developments. The other parent will stay back at the house to handle the tasks that never go away despite having a sick child, such as laundry and bills. They try to spend some time together for lunch, and then it’s back to the hospital to greet the next set of staff coming on for the night shift.
During their time in St. Pete – which has lasted much longer than they anticipated – Ziek has had two more surgeries, one to help open up his airway and a second procedure on his heart. He’ll need another surgery when he’s a little older to connect his stomach with his esophagus, which he will also get at All Children’s. Barring any complications, the Ballards anticipate being able to take Ziek home in mid-January, but they won’t be going back to Texas. Instead, they’ve purchased a home in Parrish so they can be close to their son’s medical team. However, they’ll never forget what the Ronald McDonald House has done for them.
“There’s no way we could have afforded to stay here and there’s no telling where we would be with our son,” Chad said. “If we weren’t blessed with the Ronald McDonald organization to be able to stay close by, I can honestly say I don’t know if our son would be alive. We are truly grateful.”
To donate to Ronald McDonald House Charities Tampa Bay, text GIFT to 22452 today or visit their website by clicking here.