Ronald McDonald House is an oasis amid Sin City's asphalt

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If you've ever stood at a McDonald's counter, you've probably noticed a little box whispering for a donation to the Ronald McDonald House charity.

Perhaps you've even slipped in some spare change. Maybe you meant to, but were too busy.

McDonald House provides a clean, safe place to stay for families of sick children. Some of the houses are relatively expansive places. Others are quite humble.

They all are populated by strangers drawn together by a single common denominator: an extremely ill child staying in a nearby hospital. After five months at the Ronald McDonald House in Los Angeles, I've learned that that is more than enough to break down cultural and language barriers.

When our daughter, Amelia, was diagnosed with a mixed-cell brain tumor in October 2004, our world was instantly changed. Until that moment, we'd only thought our days in Southern Nevada were hectic. Little did we know that we were about to begin a journey that would redefine our lives.

Recent months have been dark and difficult, but we continue our fight to reach the daylight of her recovery.

It's that light of hope that I want to focus on now that we have passed the first year since her diagnosis. There was a brain surgery at Barrow Neurological Institute/St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix and months of chemotherapy and radiation.

Just three weeks after we returned home in April, a follow-up MRI showed that Amelia's cancer had relapsed, this time in her spine. After a second successful surgery at Barrow, we decided to go to Children's Hospital Los Angeles to see Dr. Jonathan Finlay, a specialist.

To say we weren't ready for the Sunset Boulevard experience is a great understatement. The hospital was enormous, and the area apartment made us dizzy.

That's where the Ronald McDonald House comes in.

We were welcomed immediately, squeezed into an already stuffed schedule of families all coming from somewhere else to attempt to save the lives of their children.

We were able to walk to the hospital and to the supermarket from our room, and there hasn't been a day that goes by that I haven't been grateful for its location.

We were completely preoccupied with Amelia's treatment, and staff members understood that. I had to thank them for the times I remembered the laundry but forgot the soap. And when our nominal weekly rent was late because we were busy pulling all-night shifts at the hospital, the staff understood.

After five months, I don't know where our family would be without the Ronald McDonald House.

We missed most of the family meetings and meals, but we slowly grew acquainted with many of the wonderful people who shared the experience with us. Though I don't recall all their names, and some I only met in passing between their own hospital marathons, I'll never forget them.

One of many images:

One warm afternoon we left the door open, and in the courtyard we heard the sounds of an electric guitar played softly. A clear, bluesy voice was singing "Sunshine on My Shoulder" by John Denver.

When I went outside to see who was making the music, I saw an enormous man with a long black ponytail sitting in an electric wheelchair, a guitar sitting across his broad chest. He tilted his head back and sang soothingly to his tiny newborn baby, who lay sleeping in a stroller in front of him.

I listened to the father coo to the daughter. I thought of all the love I have in my heart for my daughter, and how if I could sing and play, I would play my soul out for her.

Then I realized the big man was not only talented on the guitar and a loving father.

He was also blind.

We still don't know where our road will lead us, but we pray every day for the strength to be up for the fight of our lives. We found an oasis amid the asphalt at the Ronald McDonald House Los Angeles. Reno and Las Vegas have a McDonald House worthy of your generosity.

We come from everywhere. We speak many languages. We have almost nothing in common.

Nothing but our children, and that was enough.

The longer we travel on this road, the more we realize we really are all in this together.

n John L. Smith's column appears Thursdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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