A courageous family finds support at Ronald McDonald House

STRONG: Beautiful toddler Penelope Dean is the sunshine of her mother Emily's life. The brave little girl has been treated for a rare tumour.
STRONG: Beautiful toddler Penelope Dean is the sunshine of her mother Emily's life. The brave little girl has been treated for a rare tumour.

Like most two-year-olds Penelope Dean just loves The Wiggles, playing with her mum’s iPad, and testing her boundaries.

But the bright and bubbly toddler has been poked, prodded and endured more days in hospital than her bright smile shows.

Penelope was just three months old when she was diagnosed with Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma (ERMS) –  a malignant tumour rare in babies under one.

It was her mother Emily’s maternal instincts that something was “not quite right”  that saved Penelope’s life.

She had a bruise-like mark on her tummy which doctors and nursing staff initially put down to the trauma of the emergency caesarean to deliver her.

But the bruise didn’t go away.

Emily went from doctor to doctor to try and get answers only to be told Penelope was suffering from anything from constipation to reflux or that “she’s just a sick baby”.

The family’s health nurse had been taking Emily’s concerns seriously and had been monitoring the little girl.

“She said to me  one day ‘I don’t like the look of her stomach, I’m really worried, go pack a bag and I will call the hospital and tell them you’re coming in’,” said Emily of the start of the family’s long association with the John Hunter Children’s Hospital in Newcastle.

They spent hours in emergency with ultrasounds x-rays, urine and blood samples with Emily’s memory of a huddle of doctors discussing her daughter. 

Penelope had a biopsy, more scans, a lumber puncture and a stint in intensive care due to high blood pressure all in a matter of days.

On October 12, 2016, she was diagnosed with the rare cancer. Doctors  told Emily they wanted to start chemotherapy immediately – which would give her a 50 per cent chance of survival.

“I was shell shocked,” Emily said of the moment she was told of Penelope’s 15cm x 10cm malignant tumour.

“How could this happen? The doctor said to me he felt if we waited, she may not make it.

“If she didn’t respond to the treatment in three days they would make her comfortable. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her.”

Fortunately Penelope did respond to the treatment and her doctors started her on the long journey of different chemotherapy protocols which she finally finished in August 2017 and is now regularly monitored.

Emily said  once she moved to the town of Hilldale about an hour away from Newcastle  with her parents Karen and Adam, the family was grateful for the assistance of Ronald McDonald House.

The long days in hospital with a seriously sick child when home was so far away meant Ronald McDonald House was of comfort to Emily and she says she is extremely grateful.

Emily shares the adorable antics of Penelope’s journey through her Instagram account – The Tale of Penny Rose.

Emily said  once she moved to the town of Hilldale about an hour away from Newcastle  with her parents Karen and Adam, the family was grateful for the assistance of Ronald McDonald House.

The long days in hospital with a seriously sick child when home was so far away meant Ronald McDonald House was of comfort to Emily – when the scheduled five days of chemotherapy would often stretch to a two-week stint in hospital.

“I had heard about Ronald McDonald House and the amazing things they did, but hadn’t considered it for us as I thought we would just bounce between friends,” said Emily.

“The social worker reached out to Ronny Mac and given Penelope’s age and our circumstances they were more than happy to have us when we needed to stay there – we feel extremely lucky and feel very grateful. Very grateful.” 

Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) will hold McHappy Day on November 17 to raise funds for the charity which helps keep families together while their seriously ill child undergoes treatment.

Since it first started in 1991, McHappy Day has raised more than $42 million for RMHC and more than $4 million in 2017.

Last year, RMHC helped provide more than 300,000 nights of accommodation or “bed nights” for over 9000 families.

Nearly 30,000 families used its “family rooms”, 330 used the organisation’s family retreats and more than 1300 students a week were included in the learning program.

To show your support on McHappy Day this Saturday you can: 

  • Buy a Big Mac from your local McDonald’s. From every Big Mac sold on McHappy Day, $2 goes directly to Ronald McDonald House Charities. Big Macs will be available all day.
  • Pick up a pair of $5 McHappy Day socks or $2, $5, $10 or $50 Helping Hands.
  • Make a gold coin donation at McDonald’s on Saturday.
  • Purchase a 600ml Cool Ridge water. For the next 12 months, 10 cents from each bottle will go to RMHC.