On Monday, February 8, as most people recovered from Super Bowl Sunday, Jillian Foster and the members of the Davis High School ski race team took to the fresh powder at Boreal Mountain Resort. Jillian’s parents, Christy Aguirre-Foster and Robert Foster, were at their Davis, California, home when they learned she’d been in an accident on the slopes. Thinking it was just a broken bone, Robert left for Reno alone to retrieve her. But later that night, Christy got a phone call.
“Bobby was sobbing uncontrollably, telling me Jillian severed her spinal cord and broke her back,” said Christy. Jillian’s back was out of alignment by a forty degree angle and she had suffered a T11 – T12 spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down. “In one second I realized our lives had drastically changed forever.”
In shock, Christy gathered items from their home. “I got a change of clothes for Jillian’s father but not myself,” Christy remembers. “I forgot so many personal items like my toothbrush but I grabbed [Robert’s] toiletry case. I had no idea what to bring for Jillian. We were mostly confused those first few days.”
She drove the two and a half hours from Davis, California, to Reno that night in tears, recalling Jillian’s recent fifth place honor at a ski race. “I couldn’t stop thinking of Jillian and how this beautiful little girl I had known since age four was about to face her 16th birthday unable to walk and now confined to a wheelchair,” said Christy. “Why had this happened, why to Jillian?”
Renown Medical Center was closest to Boreal but it meant the Fosters were separated from their usual resources and needed a place to stay. “The moment someone mentioned we had access to the Ronald McDonald House I broke down,” said Christy. “It would have been terrible if we were not close to Jillian. She needed to know how much everyone loves her and wants her to pull through this. We didn’t know how she would be able to cope with this tragedy. The fact that we could just grab our clothes, take a quick shower and go back directly to Jillian’s room in the PICU meant the world to us. We had to be available whenever the doctors and nurses needed to communicate with us. We also needed to be with Jillian to make sure she knew we would face this together as a family.”
Such a trauma meant the family’s reality would change significantly, and big questions needed to be answered. As Christy stated, staying at the House made things easier. “There were so many times when Jillian’s father and I were able to go to the room at the House and just sob together,” said Christy. “We had to get our emotions out so we could remain more positive for her. We would fall asleep crying about the reality of our new family situation, but we at least had complete privacy to talk about everything and reflect on how we were going to deal with our new situation. Neither of us could eat for days but when we were finally ready, there was a homemade meal ready for us. The kitchen was well stocked and we could grab snacks to nibble and meals if we were hungry. I was able to laundry as we didn’t have enough change of clothes. It seemed like everything we needed was right there in the House. We could just focus on getting back to our Jillian.”
In particular, it was the little things they no longer had to worry about that resonated. And one item especially.
“One afternoon when I went to do laundry I noticed a basket full of knitted items with a note, ‘If there is something here you would like, please help yourself,'” Christy mentioned. “I found a beautiful brown and blue scarf I needed as it was cold outside. In that moment, I realized I was on the receiving end of charity. This is a new experience as I’m used to helping others through my career. The ladies in our knitting club had just knitted 1600 red hats for preemies. I now fully understand how important the work our community does to help those in need. This time I was one of those people, a complete stranger in desperate need of a warm scarf and the reassurance that people out there care about our family.”
To close, Christy wishes more people would know how Ronald McDonald Houses save families in times of medical crises.
“They made our stressful situation much easier to handle. We had a quiet place to go, food to eat and coffee available for our long nights,” she said. “The artwork on the walls had a calming effect that’s hard to explain. In our moments of sorrow, the kindness and compassion showed to us helped us gather strength to move forward. The Ronald McDonald Family Room outside of Renown’s PICU also saved us as Jillian had so many visitors. We had a place for friends and family to gather and rotate in and out of Jillian’s hospital room. One staff member in particular really listened to me when I needed to vent my frustrations with our situation. She assured me it would be ok and I am eternally grateful for the empathy she showed me. The Reno Ronald McDonald House made us feel like a member of their family. I will never forget how their guidance helped our family face the most difficult situation and biggest challenge of our lives thus far.
“With all my heart, I believe the Ronald McDonald House allowed us to deal with the harsh reality that our beautiful daughter will use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. As we were able to remain close to Jillian and talk with her, we realized she was the strongest of all of us. I think our family was only able to manage our emotions by taking breaks and using the Reno Ronald McDonald House to regroup and gather our strength for what lies ahead.”
Christy reported that Jillian is planning to find a sit-ski and working eagerly to master her wheel chair. The family is modifying their home to accommodate her needs. And as for Jillian’s long-term goals?
“She wants to be an animator and possibly attend art school,” said Christy. “Perhaps her work can be displayed at a Ronald McDonald House someday.”