What was supposed to be a fun night out has forever altered the life of Thomas, a 16-year-old who is now paralyzed from the waist down.
His mother, Lindsay Rowe, vividly remembers receiving the call on April 14 from firefighters informing her that her son was severely injured in an auto accident and had been transported to Tampa General Hospital, the only Level 1 Trauma Center in the area.
Rowe, a single mother from Sarasota, learned her son suffered a C5 spinal cord fracture, which often results in paralysis.
Day by day, Rowe and her longtime partner took turns visiting Thomas at his bedside, refusing to abandon him – and if the couple did want to momentarily leave the hospital to sleep in a bed or take a hot shower, the option wasn’t on the table.
“He had his accident the night of the Taylor Swift concert in Tampa,” Rowe said. “There were no hotels available. If we did find one close by, it would’ve been cost-prohibitive.”
A nurse mentioned a housing program from the non-profit Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Tampa Bay chapter that provides nearby housing to families seeking critical care at certain hospitals. Thomas’ nurse helped connect the family with a social worker to begin the application process.
“We didn’t think we would have a room so quickly, but someone was able to leave,” Rowe said. The room is a mere 600 steps away from the hospital’s doors.
“We were getting weary of not having a shower, not resting comfortably and wearing the same clothes. It was amazing to come over here and have a hot meal, clean laundry and take a shower,” Rowe said.
RMHC owns 80 housing units in multiple buildings across the region. The 14-bedroom Tampa house opened in 1992 in the Davis Islands neighborhood, and serves families receiving care from Tampa General Hospital, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital and/or Shriners Hospital.
The organization also has three homes in St. Petersburg near Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Since 1980, the housing program has helped more than 50,000 sick children and their families. It also applies to families traveling to the area for specialized medical treatment.
For example, Johns Hopkins has a treatment program for kids suffering from complex esophageal and airway problems. The program brings international families to the hospital campus.
Additionally, this month, RMHC adopted the Hope Bundles program, previously known as High Risk Hope, which provides resources for mothers and families with high-risk pregnancies and premature infants in the hospital.
“Families can stay for free as they need to due to the generosity of the community,” said Joseph Citro, director of development and marketing at RMHC Tampa Bay.
The average stay is 19 nights. The longest stay was four years.
“We define family however you define family, it could be parents, siblings or guardians – whoever you redeem as family,” Citro said. “You think about the costs of a hotel and food. On top of someone’s mortgage and other bills, it is really difficult to take on.”
RMCH doesn’t have a targeted funding goal. Typically, the organization raises roughly $25,000 over several months; however, during the holiday season, RHMC raises approximately $500,000.
Citro said the activity peaks in the summertime as kids are out of school and there are also many outpatient procedures. The buildings typically have an 80 – 85% occupancy rate.
Rowe says she uses the room multiple nights a week, as she is at the hospital 22 hours a day.
Although her son developed ammonia while being treated at the hospital, which is common in health care facilities, she said he is still receiving the best care and has regained some movement in his arms, but can’t steadily grip objects.
Rowe, who most recently worked as a math teacher at Booker High School in Sarasota, informed the school that she will take the rest of the school year off.
However, she was able to complete some lesson plans, update grades and make a YouTube video for students.
“Every parent wants to be with their child, but some don’t have the financial means. I am incredibly fortunate. It’s really a shame that there’s limited family medical leave for many people and they have to worry about losing their job,” Rowe said.
To apply for the housing program, there are no barriers to entry. It’s based on capacity, Citro said.
The eligible person works with a social worker to submit an application, and RMHC verifies if a room is available. The group strives to secure a room the same day the application is verified. If there isn’t any availability, the organization provides discounts for hotels or tries to cover the hotel costs.
“During Covid, we were paying a significant amount of hotel stays for families,” Citro said.
RMHC is evaluating how it can provide more transitional resources after a family departs from a unit. RMHC does provide families with a week’s worth of groceries following the end of their stay.