Keri Gillespie encouraged her 3-year-old son to give a thumbs-up while he played with a toy train Tuesday, a simple behavior for most toddlers but a significant accomplishment for him.
Born 10 weeks premature in 2009, Michael Gillespie spent the first 299 days of his life at Edward Hospital in Naperville. He suffered from a rare abdominal wall malformation, born with most of his major organs contained in a sac outside his body. He's had six surgeries. He still requires speech therapy, but is walking and attending preschool in Plainfield.
"Every time I get frustrated when he's not eating, I go back and look at the pictures when he was here," Gillespie, 44, said. "It rips my heart out. It brings me back to how far he has come."
His parents kept vigil at Edward, often sleeping in chairs by his side.
Mother and son returned to the hospital Tuesday for the unveiling of the first Ronald McDonald Family Room in Illinois -- a nearly 2,000-square-foot space at Edward offering families a comfortable place to rest.
"Having a calm area where they can regroup is really essential," Edward President and CEO Pam Davis said. "It helps them know that with the ups and downs there are other people who have been there."
The facility provides a living room with a television, a kitchen, two computer stations with Internet access, two sleeping rooms, showers and a playroom. It's just a short walk from Edward's Newborn Intensive Care and Pediatric Intensive Care units.
Construction and upkeep of the family room is funded by the Edward Foundation's KidsCare Campaign.
In addition to the family room, the campaign is helping to fund the renovation of the Newborn Intensive Care and Pediatric Intensive Care units.
Hospital officials said the campaign -- setting a goal of $1.5 million to support the projects -- still has more than $500,000 in naming and sponsorship opportunities available.
The Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana donated $200,000 and will manage and operate the family room, expected to open for patient and family use in early March.
Gillespie pledged to become a volunteer there to encourage other families with sick children.
"You can't take care of your child and be there for your child unless you're taking care of yourself," Gillespie said. "It gives you strength."