Last month, a week away from giving birth, Maria Dunlap stood smiling at the door of a Corryville hotel room, and over the puzzles and coloring books and snacks, she welcomed parents and children facing serious illness to feel less fragile.
“This has been a dream,” Dunlap said of the Reviv Room. “It’s a space for a family to be together, away from the hospital, to relax and play games, feel a little normal. They can meet other families in the same world they’re in.”
The donated space at the Graduate Hotel is just one feature of the Reviv Family Support Foundation, a 6-year-old nonprofit that Dunlap and her husband Rod built for families with children getting treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, often in the intensive care unit.
Reviv Family Support Foundation is unique among the region’s caregiving network, said Cincinnati Children's social worker Nancy Delaney, because it offers a wide range of volunteer help to any family with a medically fragile child.
“Families tell me that the Reviv support volunteer was just life-changing for them,” Delaney said. “A helper coming to clean a mom’s house, prep her meals, play with her kids, providing that respite care, gives a mom some time, and that time is really so special for them.”
Sometimes, help from Reviv is as simple as a gasoline card. But through the novel coronavirus pandemic, Dunlap said, particular needs surged. The Ronald McDonald House closed for short-term stays, so Reviv, with a yearly budget of less than $200,000, has gone nearly $50,000 in the red this year alone paying hotel bills for dozens of out-of-town families with sick children. Volunteers made grocery runs for patients.
The Dunlaps know the struggle. On their own journey with a sick child, they saw that few families could stay with their hospitalized children due to work demands or family obligations. Medicine can address childhood illnesses that even a decade ago were considered hopeless causes. But medical advances also mean more families with sick children, without much help just to get through the day.
“Our hospital is phenomenal at what it does,” Maria Dunlap said. “But when you are back out in the world, there’s no support. We want families with medically fragile children to realize that there’s someone to help them.”
“People should not walk out of the hospital with their sick kid and feel like they’re drowning,” said Rod Dunlap. “Unfortunately, way too many families do feel like they’re drowning.”
In 2012, the Dunlaps learned in their first pregnancy that the baby they named Vivian had a fatal heart defect. She spent 59 days in the Cincinnati Childrens’ ICU. Maria slept next to Vivian’s bed, Rod in a hospital guest room nearby.
“The way I like to describe it,” said Rod Dunlap, “is that we were in a snow globe and everyone else was on the outside looking in. Only the three of us could really understand what was going on and feel the magnitude.”
But other families could not keep the same watch in the ICU. “Some rooms had infants clinging on for their lives, and there was not a single person with them,” Rod Dunlap said. “I kept thinking, this shouldn’t be the case. Why is no one in here?”
Maria Dunlap talked with parents who had other kids at home and couldn’t be in the ICU all day, and with parents who could not take time from work. “We just found it unacceptable that if a child is clinging to life, someone should be there helping and supporting that child,” Maria said.
Vivian died in September 2012. In their mourning, the Dunlaps used money raised for their needs to help other families, a common path for the small but growing circles of parents with medically fragile children, Delaney said.
“You’re not recognizing that there’s a need unless the situation personally impacts your family,” she said. “The average person isn’t thinking about these very critically illnesses on a day-to-day basis, and what does that mean?”
For Krystal and Joseph Rodriguez of Harrison, Ohio, the critical illness of their son Oliver, 5, meant moving this year from California to be closer to Cincinnati Children’s. Within weeks of the move, the family got connected to Reviv. “They pretty much said: We can help you in any way that you need help,” Krystal said. “And I said, cleaning!” Now a volunteer comes nearly every week to tackle that job.
“I’ve never had an organization that said, what do you need, how can we help you?” she said. “They meet the family where they’re at. They ask you what you need and how they can help, and if you can’t think of something, they’ll help you think of something.”
Parents, Maria Dunlap said, “need people who are unafraid of fragility to step up and make space to lend a hand, an extra ear, a shoulder to cry on.”
The pandemic laid a heavy hand on nonprofit fundraising, and Reviv has struggled. But Maria Dunlap is a zestful fundraiser, and now she dreams of expanding the donated space at the Graduate Hotel to a house.
The Dunlaps live in Covedale, and their family has grown by almost a child a year. The children talk about Vivian as a vital presence at home, insisting that her favorite cake is strawberry, Maria said. In family photographs, one of the children will hold the Vivi bear, a stuffed toy made from the onesies Vivian wore in the hospital. “She is very much a part of our family,” Rod said.
On Aug. 30, Maria labored 15 hours to deliver baby No. 7, daughter Siena, at 9 pounds 3 ounces. Her brothers and sisters already are telling her about Vivian.