Far from home: Hockey player finds community during treatment for cancer

SPONSORED: A program that provides Alaska patients a home away from home in the Lower 48 is expanding north to do the same for patients who must travel to Anchorage from rural communities.

Justin Woods first noticed the lump on his knee about six years ago.

He got it checked. Doctors called it a calcium deposit. A teenager at the time, Woods thought nothing of it. He was an athlete — a Fairbanks native who played hockey for West Valley High School and signed up to play for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks.

Then the lump started to hurt. During Woods' freshman year in college, he felt a lingering soreness in his knee. Tests remained inconclusive, but he decided to remove the lump when the hockey season ended in the spring.

After the surgery, the doctor delivered the news: The lump was more than a calcium deposit, it was a rare bone cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma. Woods would need treatment immediately, doctors said. He'd need to go to Seattle, they said. He'd need to stay there for nearly a year.

"Basically, I just was in complete shock. I didn't know what to do or think. My life just paused for a minute when I got the news," Woods recalled. "I thought to myself, 'My life's over. I'm not gonna play hockey anymore.'"

But his life wasn't over, and he wasn't alone. Woods' mother took a leave of absence from work to accompany him to Seattle Children's Hospital, and the Seattle Ronald McDonald House opened its doors, providing a place to stay throughout his treatment. To Woods, it became a home away from home, a place to find support in the months-long battle for his life.

"It's a really good environment," he said. "Everyone's there for an unfortunate reason, but everyone's super nice."

Now the same charity organization is expanding north. Alaska's first Ronald McDonald House, set to open in 2017, aims to provide long-term shelter and support to patients receiving care at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

"We've wanted to do an Alaska house for a long time," said Michelle Scharlock, communications manager for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington & Alaska.

Plans for the Anchorage facility include 34 private rooms, gathering areas and kitchen space. The Ronald McDonald House at ANMC will accommodate women with high-risk pregnancies and pediatric patients at the Alaska Native Medical Center. The project is years in the making, Scharlock said.

For the many ANMC patients who come from rural hub communities and remote communities, finding accommodations during a medical trip to Anchorage can be a challenge. Nearly a decade ago, lacking the resources to actually build a Ronald McDonald House in Alaska, the charity organization partnered with ANMC to provide a van shuttle service for patients traveling to Anchorage for medical care. The shuttle serves hundreds of families annually. Meanwhile, out-of-town patients routinely stayed in off-campus motels, isolated from other patients and vital support services. While the Quyana House provides 56 rooms for out-of-town patients, the need for on-campus hospital housing remained.

So, about three years ago, Scharlock said, the medical center proposed another project: A new Ronald McDonald House, built into one of the six floors at a housing facility currently under construction on the hospital's Anchorage campus. This time around, the stars aligned.

The House is more than walls and a roof. There are plans to develop a community rooted in Alaska Native culture, offering traditional cooking and craft classes and other activities. The common areas provide space for patients to meet and mingle. For Woods, that was one of the most important aspects of his stay at the Ronald McDonald House.

In Seattle, Woods became close friends with another fellow patient he met at the House. They watched movies together and took trips to the mall.

"It was nice to have someone your own age," he said.

His mother spent time with the other parents there, a support system that helped Woods cope with his own treatment, he said. During one of the most uncertain times in his life, he said, the Ronald McDonald House gave him a measure of comfort.

Woods' story is typical for the charity. According to an international study published by the Journal of Health Organization and Management in 2015, Ronald McDonald Houses successfully reduce familial stress and financial burden, improve sleep quality for parents, decrease the burden on hospitals and improve their ability to care for families. In 2014, there were more than 300 Ronald McDonald Houses serving hospitals around the globe. Collectively, they served nearly 5.7 million kids.

Plenty of Alaskans have spent nights in Ronald McDonald Houses in the Lower 48. Scharlock said the new Anchorage facility intends to provide the same supports for Alaskans undergoing treatments in their home state.

As for Woods? At  22, he's been cancer-free for more than a year now, he said. Next year, he'll be back on the ice, playing hockey for the Nanooks, thinking about life after graduation.

Pictured at top: (left to right) Ronald McDonald House in Seattle guest Nikol enjoying a story. She's had 10 surgeries and is healing up at the House with her mom. (Photo by Lidia Flanagin / Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington & Alaska) Rendering of the Alaska RMH facility, currently under construction. (Image courtesy of ANTHC) House guest Kapua came to Seattle from Hawaii with her family and is awaiting a kidney transplant. She loves to spend time with her sisters at the House doing crafts. (Photo by Lidia Flanagin / Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington & Alaska) Sporting jersey #8, Justin Woods played hockey for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks and is looking forward to returning to the ice in blue and gold next season. (Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks Athletics)

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This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.