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During son's treatment, frayed mom finds McDonald House helps her cope


Five-year-old Michael Sancilio stood in front of the television set yesterday, gently smacking its side as he stared into its flashing blue screen, trying to get the attached Nintendo game to work.

He acted like he was at home -- and in a way he was.

For eight months of the past year, Michael and his mother have stayed at 635 W. Lexington St. -- the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House -- while he undergoes treatment for leukemia at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Yesterday, the house had a homecoming party for Michael and the house's other residents, volunteers, board members and contributors. It marked the ninth year families have had a place to stay in Baltimore while their children are treated at area hospitals.

The Baltimore Ronald McDonald House is one of 150 throughout the country that provides families a home-like atmosphere while their children undergo treatment for life-threatening ailments.

At yesterday's festivities, Michael cut the birthday cake -- but not before he snagged some frosting from the top with his finger.

Before that, he did what a lot of 5-year-old kids would do -- fall asleep on a couch as he clutched his blanket.

As he slept, his mother described how much the house helped her cope with her son's illness.

"You get so stressed at the hospital that it's good to come here and not think about the hospital," said Denise Sancilio, 35, of Virginia Beach, Va.

For Mrs. Sancilio and the other families that stayed in the 26 bedrooms, the house provides more than just a roof and home-like atmosphere. It provides support.

"We've made some great friends. You think you're alone until you've met the other families," she said. "This might sound terrible, but it helps that you're not alone, that there are other families in the same place."

When Michael was first diagnosed with leukemia in March 1990, his mother was eight months pregnant and the family stayed in a hotel See RONALD, 3B, Col. 2RONALD, from 1Bwhile he was in the hospital. It wasn't until they went home that a social worker told them about the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House.

Mrs. Sancilio said that among other things, it means she can do her laundry and be "normal" for a while.

When Michael and his mother arrived April 1, it was their second stay.

The first was last August when Michael received a marrow transplant from the umbilical cord of his newborn sister, Christina. The transplant took, but he had a relapse and had to receive a bone marrow transplant from Christina.

Mrs. Sancilio said Christina, now a year old, is the family's hope for Michael -- the rest of the family didn't match as a marrow donor.

The second transplant was successful. He is at the house while undergoing outpatient treatment, and Mrs. Sancilio hopes to be back home by the end of July.

People from over the United States and many foreign countries have passed through the doors on Lexington Street. In the nine years that the Baltimore house has been open, 3,300 families have stayed there, said Lynda Cogswell, Baltimore Ronald McDonald House board of directors president.

Lodgings at the house are provided to the families for $10 a day -- if they can afford it.

"Parents were sleeping on the floors or couches in the hospitals. It's so draining psychologically not to have any place to go," she said.

Sometimes the families stay overnight or for months at a time.

The house tries to keep a non-medical atmosphere as much as possible, said Brenda Conway, resident manager.

"Sometimes the doctors become friends with the family and want to come visit; we ask that they change into street clothes before coming over," she said.

The first Ronald McDonald House was started in Philadelphia in 1974. Area hospitals saw the need for family members to have a place to stay while children are being treated.

Each house is run by a board of community volunteers and has its own policies. While the restaurant chain donates generously, each house must raise money to meet some costs, Ms. Conway said.

Mrs. Sancilio and Michael said yesterday they were just glad that lTC the house is around -- even if the Nintendo didn't work.

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