There’s no place like home for the holidays -- but celebrating at home isn’t always an option. Illness, injury, pregnancy complications, childbirth and ongoing medical treatment can require patients to spend all or part of the holiday season seeking medical care away from home.

In 2018, more than 300 patients were hospitalized at the Alaska Native Medical Center over the holidays, while friends, family and patient escorts stayed in patient housing on the hospital’s Anchorage campus.

"I would imagine it's really the worst time to be in the hospital, far away from family," said Roberta Miljure, ANMC’s volunteer services coordinator.

Miljure recruits, orients and manages volunteers and community organizations who work to help brighten patients’ days. As hectic as things can get during December, it’s also a season when volunteers are at the ready.

"It's my busiest time of year," Miljure said. "Everybody seems to want to help out during the holidays."

Miljure’s team of volunteers gets right to work the day after Thanksgiving, putting up decorations -- eight trees, 65 wreaths, and seemingly endless yards of garland so far this year. And that’s just the beginning of their holiday merrymaking.

Santa on the scene

Throughout the holiday season, volunteers plan special surprises to help the Alaska Native Health Campus feel more festive. Patients enjoy visits from carolers, the Santa Express fire truck, and even the Grinch.

"I have a volunteer who dresses up as Santa," Miljure said. "Christmas Eve, we start at 10 a.m. and we deliver a gift to every single patient that's admitted in the hospital."

Santa and his crew begin in the mother-baby unit, working their way through pediatrics and then up to the adult floors, passing out age-appropriate gifts as they go.

For adults and Elders, Miljure said, they aim to give items that are practical and helpful in the hospital -- blankets, coffee mugs, and travel bags to pack for home at discharge.

The fun doesn't end on December 25, either. Many ANMC patients are Russian Orthodox, so Christmas celebrations will continue into 2020.

“Every year we have Russian Christmas,” Miljure said. On Jan. 7, the day traditionally observed in many communities across Alaska, a Slaviq celebration will commence with caroling in the lobby of the Anchorage Native Primary Care Center at ANMC and continue with a “starring” procession throughout the hospital, similar to the way that starring processions go door to door in rural communities.

“It’s a beautiful tradition to carry on,” Miljure said. “Even people who don’t identify as Russian Orthodox, they appreciate the celebration extending into the following year, too.”

Making a home away from home

It used to be that patients visiting Anchorage for treatment stayed in local hotels, which could get pretty lonely, especially around the holidays. When Patient Housing at ANMC opened on the Alaska Native Health Campus in 2017, it brought improved social and recreational opportunities, which created a more welcoming temporary home for patients and their families.

One floor of Patient Housing at ANMC has been set aside as Ronald McDonald House Anchorage, a 34-room space for pediatric patients and their families, as well as expectant mothers experiencing high-risk pregnancies. The staff makes an extra effort to help families feel at home, especially over the holidays, said Ronald McDonald House manager Dianne McKinley.

"We really do want to make it special for them," McKinley said. "It is lonely. We try to do what we can to alleviate that loneliness."

The celebrations at the hospital and patient housing really make a difference for families who are spending Christmas away from home, she added.

"I recall one family that was just so excited," McKinley said. "They were all decked out, in a tie and everything, just looking forward to what we provided."

Gifts for all

Some patients and their families may not have the time or resources to buy gifts, especially with full treatment schedules. The time and expense of traveling to Anchorage for health care can also cut into the holiday festivities.

The week before Christmas, guest parents at the Ronald McDonald House are invited to "shop" donated gifts to pick out items for their children. If there are enough items to go around, parents can also select presents to send to other children who may have stayed back home. A volunteer group assists with gift-wrapping.

Last year the program was flooded with donations from local organizations. Donations for 2019 haven’t been quite as numerous.

"This year it just seems a little quiet," McKinley said.

Teens and tween are often the one group that tends to slip through the cracks when it comes to gift donations.

"We struggle with having gifts for the teenagers," Miljure said. "People always really think of babies and little children during the holidays."

Gifts for teens don't have to be expensive, she said; headphones, phone chargers and cases, hooded sweatshirts, fun socks, and slippers are always popular. McKinley also suggested fleece blankets, art supplies, and stuffed animals (even teens love teddy bears); anything that can help provide some extra comfort while away from home.

"Sometimes folks are medevaced in, and they come in with just what they have on," McKinley said.

Ronald McDonald House keeps an up-to-date wish list on its website. Items may be purchased and shipped by Amazon, mailed to the House, or dropped off in person.

Giving the gift of time

Volunteers are welcome at ANMC and Ronald McDonald House, during the holidays and all year long. McKinley said evenings and weekends tend to be times when patients and families are looking for diversions, and something as simple as a group serving up root beer floats or hot chocolate can be just what the doctor ordered to recover from a long day at the hospital.

"What we want when they come back is that they have a place to relax," McKinley said. "It doesn't have to be complicated. Get a tub of ice cream, a liter of root beer."

Popular activities include arts and crafts projects, beading, bingo, and smoothie nights. Special meals and snacks are a hit as well. Once a month, a local church group comes to cook a meal, giving Ronald McDonald House families a break from eating all their meals in the cafeteria. Other groups sponsor weekly deliveries of fresh fruit, a treat that's prohibitively expensive in many guests' home communities.

"Our families really appreciate that," McKinley said. "After a while they do get hungry for home cooked meals."

Miljure said she'd also love to have more volunteers to host activities at the hospital.

"One of the favorite things is bingo," she said. "Patients love to play bingo while they're here." ANMC has the equipment, the cards and even the prizes; they just need volunteers to come in and lead the game.

If there’s one holiday tradition she’d like to recruit more volunteers to share, Miljure added, it’s the gift of music.

“People seem to really love the caroling and music,” she said. “I would love to see more music and caroling. Music is therapeutic, too.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.