The new Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Texas Family Room at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center includes four bedrooms like this one. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

Tuesday, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Texas opened its fifth family room in an area hospital. The new four-bedroom, two-bathroom 800-square-foot space at St. David’s Women’s Center of Texas within St. David’s North Austin Medical Center will help parents of critically ill babies be able to be close to their children, while having a place to shower and sleep.

“It’s all about keeping families close, and this gets the parent even closer,” says Carolyn Schwarz, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Texas. The key is to have a hospital willing to provide the space, she says.

Most of the parents will be those caring for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. About 7,000 babies a year are born at St. David’s North Austin, and 700 are admitted to the NICU a year. “There is plenty of need,” says Allen Harrison, the CEO of St. David’s North Austin. “We’re very excited about getting this room open.”

St. David’s North Austin also has a children’s hospital with 10 emergency room beds, six pediatric intensive care unit beds and eight beds in the medical surgery area.

Ronald McDonald House has had a family room at that location since 2009, but it was just a kitchenette and a living room. Volunteers often would find families sleeping in the recliners there. Now, families will be able to stay the night in one of the bedrooms, which have queen beds, a chair, a night stand and a luggage rack. They’ll be able to shower in one of the two large bathrooms, as well as enjoy the small kitchenette that is stocked with snacks or go to the larger kitchenette within the living room space.

The nursing staff will select which families receive priority to stay there based on room availability and the child’s critical health status as well as extenuating circumstances such as a parent’s lack of transportation to the hospital. All families can still enjoy the living room space and large kitchenette or use the showers.

This is the latest family room to open. In May 2015, Ronald McDonald House opened an 1,800-square-foot space at Seton Medical Center.  It also opened up one in May 2016 at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Bryan. There are also family rooms at St. David’s Medical Center and Dell Children’s Medical Center. Another family room is being built at College Station Medical Center for a 2017 opening.

The first family room at St. David’s North Austin was just a living room and a kitchenette. It is still in use, but now there are bedrooms and bathrooms down the hall for families. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

The family rooms see about the same number of families a year as the Ronald McDonald House across a parking lot from Dell Children’s Medical Center. Right now it’s about 25,000 visits a year to the family rooms and the small family room without bedrooms at North Austin has been the most used. Now, beginning this week, families will be able to stay the night in one of the new bedrooms.

Yvette, McDonald, the assistant chief nursing office at St. David’s Women’s Center of Texas at the hospital, says families experience “high alarm fatigue,” when they are in the NICU. The family room, she says, “is a place of normalcy within all the abnormalcy.”

Funding for the family room came from St. David’s North Austin Medical Center, St. David’s Foundation, Wag-a-Bag and Ashley Furniture Home Store.

Learn more about the history of the Ronald McDonald House in Central Texas in the Giving Ways series.