An Oasis in the Desert
There are hints, there are signs and then there are meteors that fall from the sky and hit you right between the eyes. Take for example, how Eddie and Katie Vansell of Van Buren first met.
“There used to be this thing called Bridal Fest at the convention center,” Eddie says. “I was a freshman in college, and she was a senior in high school and we were both modeling tuxes and wedding gowns.”
“Yeah, I met my husband while wearing a wedding dress,” says Katie and the two disintegrate into laughter.
Laughter in the Vansell home mixes into a calliope of other sound and motion. Married in 2009, the couple has welcomed four children over the years, including Lillie, age eleven; Willa, age eight and four-year-old fraternal twins Margaret and Ezra, all four of whom lend their substantial voices and energy to the soundtrack of daily life.
The frenzied pace and chaos are almost enough to make the couple forget just how close they came to tragedy, as the twins insisted on entering the world well ahead of schedule.
“It was a little exciting and nerve wracking to find out that I was having twins,” Katie says. “It was different than my single pregnancies. Both of my girls arrived at term at a good weight and were healthy, no problems. You always kind of expect something to happen with twins because it’s just such a high-risk situation.”
“Katie went into preterm labor at thirty-two weeks,” Eddie says. “That was a very hopeful time and extremely trying time as well. Days feel like weeks and moments feel like hours. What little control you think that you have in life is completely lost. It’s times like those where you’re required to exhale and trust those around you and cling to prayers and the support from family members that you’re given.”
Doctors managed to delay the twins’ birth for three more crucial weeks, allowing the babies more time to develop. But when the magical day arrived right after Thanksgiving 2018, there was no doubt that the time had come.
“We joke around a lot; we refer to them as our Black Friday two-for-one deal,” Eddie says. “I was actually in line at the local hardware store at five a.m. and I got a call from Katie and she’s like, ‘It’s go time.’ By the third pregnancy, you know what that means.”
Ezra and Margaret entered the world via emergency C-section. Combined, they weighed just over ten pounds. Though small, both were spunky and raucous even in delivery – Eddie recalls Margaret as “super tiny, feisty and beautiful,” and Ezra as “loud; this kid came out like a freight train.”
But through the surreal joy of doubling their family in one fell swoop, the cold reality of the situation crept in almost immediately. Eddie noticed Ezra wheezing and watched in horror as his skin color changed to a deep blue. Nurses swooped in, whisking the babies to the NICU, the start of two months of on-and-off medical treatment, the first two weeks being the most critical.
“At birth, they both had low blood oxygen because they had underdeveloped lungs, which is common in preterm twins,” Eddie says. “Margaret was just really small; she was unable to keep her weight. Ezra was dealing with a couple of different things; he had a pneumothorax, which is a collapsed lung, pneumonia and jaundice. He was in isolation so he was unable to be held and loved as a newborn baby should be.
“I’m convinced that that is one of the hardest things that you could ever have to endure in life as a parent, watching your child cry in isolation with what seems like countless tubes and wires coming in and out of them. You’re unable to hold them or embrace them and provide that support and comfort that you want to give.”
The couple may have been in unfamiliar territory with their new additions, but one thing was very clear – as long as the kids were in the hospital, one or both of the parents would be there, too.
“We weren’t sure how we were going to manage it all with Eddie’s work and caring for our older children,” Katie remembers. “The situation was such a crushing weight we were literally in shock and trying to process all of the things at once. My only response was, ‘I have to be with the babies. I’ll sleep in the car if I have to.’
“I’m not sure if she heard our desperation or what, but the NICU nurse who came in to comfort us suggested we visit the Ronald McDonald Family Room.”
An offering of the Ronald McDonald House Charities Arkoma, the family room located inside Mercy Hospital is a place of respite for parents of sick children. Built in 2010, the 3,200-square-foot, four-bedroom facility supports both daytime and overnight guests, offering communal sitting areas, a dining room, fully stocked kitchen and laundry. Since opening, the Ronald McDonald Family Room has served nearly 4,000 children and families from Arkansas and Oklahoma, all at no charge.
For the Vansells, who previously knew little if anything about the mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Family Room was a godsend.
“It was like an oasis in the desert,” Eddie says. “We were literally about to be overwhelmed and here this was. They treated us like family. Many of them we consider family today. It was a place where Katie could be close by, you didn’t have to think about what you were going to eat. We had ways to wash our clothes and clean ourselves. It is just priceless during that time and situation.”
In 2021, the organization opened a stand-alone, eleven-bedroom Ronald McDonald House to serve even more families. The Vansells have been active in their support of the organization, never forgetting the welcoming port it provided in a dark and stormy chapter of their family history.
In addition to regular giving, the family participates in a share a meal program to feed families staying in the Family Room, volunteerism that’s made an impression on the couple’s older children. Lillie organized a volunteer project for Ronald McDonald House through her Girl Scout troop, an effort that earned her the highest award possible for her level of scouting.
In addition to hundreds of volunteer hours and in-kind and monetary donations, Ronald McDonald House Charities Arkoma runs on the proceeds from three major fundraising events during the year. These include the Red Shoe Soiree in the spring, Golf 4 A Cause in summertime and the fall Red Shoe Shindig, this year slated for Saturday, November 5 at the Wyndham Fort Smith City Center. Proceeds from these events help continue the organization’s mission to house and support families of sick children just like the Vansells.
Looking back, in the few and far between quieter moments of their hectic, happy lives, Eddie and Katie still feel an enormous sense of gratitude for the organization’s efforts in their time of need.
“It makes a huge difference for an organization to take care of the parents who are in the hospital with their kids,” Katie says. “Ronald McDonald House is doing more than just keeping families close by; it’s also supporting the families who are there. It’s really the worst thing for a mother to see her child sick. The thing that you want to do the most in that situation is be there for your child. Ronald McDonald House Charities helps facilitate that.”
Plan to attend the 12th Annual Red Shoe Shindig, presented by Mercy, McDonald’s and Tyson!
Saturday, November 5, 2022
Wyndham Fort Smith City Center
700 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas
6pm – 11pm
For tickets, visit rmhcofarkoma.org, contact Emily Presley at email@example.com, or call 479.756.5600.