Lincoln ‘Little Fighter’ Santano – Mom Natalie’s Journey To Find JoeAnna’s House

It was December, 26, 2019, Boxing Day, when Lincoln ‘Little Fighter’ Santano made an unexpected, early entry into the world at Kelowna General Hospital. He was a long way from home.

His mother, Natalie, had been experiencing premature labour and was quickly air-ambulanced to KGH from their hometown in Creston, B.C. so Lincoln could receive the specialized care he needed. He was born nine weeks early, and would remain in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at KGH for 44 days.

Natalie’s husband, Kitt, was present for Lincoln’s birth, but had to return home to Creston just three days later. As you can imagine, the challenges that pre-term babies and their families face are significant. However, when there are already five little ones at home, and home is over 400kms away, the hardship is penetrating.

“I was emotionally overwhelmed,” explains Natalie. “I needed to be with Lincoln. And my other children needed me too. My husband had to work and was carrying all of the responsibilities at home. I was worried about Lincoln and I missed my family.”

Two days after Lincoln was born, Natalie was discharged from the hospital. Natalie knew that Lincoln had a long road ahead of him in the NICU before he would be strong enough to travel home. Exhausted and scared, she now carried the added burden of finding accommodation for the duration of his stay.

Everything changed when Natalie found JoeAnna’s House.

At JoeAnna’s House, Natalie found a home-away-from-home; a warm, inviting place to rest and relax within steps of Lincoln’s bedside; a place to be in community with others who were navigating a similar, difficult path.

Natalie describes her first thoughts of seeing JoeAnna’s House, “The atmosphere was incredible, so peaceful and calming and I can’t say enough about the staff and volunteers. For 38 days JoeAnna’s House became my home, and the people in it became my family and friends.”

Because of JoeAnna’s House, Natalie was able to focus on bonding with Lincoln and instead of worrying about where she was going to sleep at night and the financial burden of being so far away from home for more than a month.

When asked what she would have done without JoeAnna’s House, Natalie responded “I honestly don’t even want to think about how different my experience would have been without JoeAnna’s House. Being able to have JoeAnna’s House so close to the hospital, allowed me to spend so much more precious time with Lincoln, and to me that time was priceless.”

After spending the first 40 days of his life in the NICU, “Little Fighter” Lincoln Santano was released from KGH on February 3, 2020 and traveled home to Creston with his parents to meet his 5 brothers and sisters.

To those who have donated to make JoeAnna’s House a reality and keep it operating, Natalie shares,

“I hope you know the profound impact your generosity has had on my family. By giving to JoeAnna’s House you have brought such happiness and peace into peoples’ lives when they truly need it the most. It’s a gift that cannot be measured. I will never forget how blessed I felt being a guest at JoeAnna’s House.”

You can help ensure families like the Santano’s have a place to stay when they need it most. Donate Now. 

Full Circle For Rotarian

 

As the lead referral hospital for patients from across BC’s southern interior, guests of JoeAnna’s House are primarily from outside the central Okanagan. Which is why the Rotary Club of Salmon Arm – Daybreak chose to give $20,000 to support the build and opening of JoeAnna’s House. Many of the club’s members had direct experience travelling to KGH for medical care. Supporting JoeAnna’s House was important to them, knowing that it would provide a safe place for those from their hometown to stay close to loved ones while they were in care at KGH.

Just a few weeks after it opened, Cindy Howes, a member of the Rotary Club of Salmon Arm – Daybreak, became ill with what was originally thought to be pneumonia. Vibrant and healthy at 56, it was a shock for Cindy and her family when she was transferred to KGH and learned that she had stage IV lung cancer.

Cindy’s sister, Nicki, arrived at JoeAnna’s House on New Year’s Eve. Over the next few weeks, the staff welcomed eight members of Cindy’s family to JoeAnna’s House including her son, daughter and partner, brother and sister. They flew in from across Western Canada. Travelling from Saskatchewan, Cindy’s elderly parents were the last to arrive.

The family stayed close to Cindy in the coming weeks, as her condition continued to decline. On January 21, she passed away.

“Being able to stay at JoeAnna’s House and be with Cindy in her final days was such an incredible gift for all of us,” says Nicki, “It was home for those weeks. I worked from my laptop at the kitchen banquette or sitting in the living room, and coordinated meals for my family. The most important part was being able to walk and see Cindy whenever she needed us, or we needed her.”

“Cindy was so proud that she and her fellow Rotarians played a part in making JoeAnna’s House possible,” reflects Nicki. “It’s a beautiful part of her story and we will do everything we can to continue her legacy of supporting JoeAnna’s House.”

“To everyone who gave to make this incredible home a reality, thank you for this gift. It is a very, very special place.”

The Most Precious Gift

It was a clear, starry night this past November 21, when the community came out in droves to celebrate the completion of a project that has captivated our collective hearts for over two years. Built and now operated entirely by the generosity of the people of this community and from across the southern interior region, the lights were officially turned on at JoeAnna’s House.

JoeAnna’s House Grand Opening – Nov. 21, 2019

Just four days later, on November 25, the first family arrived, desperately in need of a safe, warm place to stay near Kelowna General Hospital where a beloved son, husband and father fought to recover from a devastating traumatic accident in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The family had already been in Kelowna for over four weeks.

For Cam Klassen, October 21 began like any other typical, rainy fall day in Westwold BC, a small community close to his home in Enderby. The 31-year-old carpenter was working on a hayshed roof with a friend. But in a moment, everything changed.

Cam slipped on the wet roof and fell to the ground, 22 ft. below. His friend also fell, but was unhurt, and quickly called 9-1-1. The Air Ambulance was dispatched directly to the farm, and Cam was flown to Kelowna General Hospital, the main referral hospital for emergency trauma for the southern interior region. His injuries were extensive, but the most concerning was the trauma to his brain.

He was sedated and placed in a medically induced coma.

That night, Cam’s wife, Heather, tried to comprehend the gravity of Cam’s condition. So many doctors, broken bones, bleeding in the brain – the list seemed endless. Heather leaned into her faith.

“All we could do was pray. I just prayed that his brain would be OK.”

Heather Klassen (right) and her family photographed inside JoeAnna’s House

Soon, her prayers began to include their two small children: four-year-old-daughter, Jaci, and one-year-old son, Kade who Heather had to leave in Armstrong with friends. It broke her heart to be away from them. She did her best, with the help of her parents, Larry and Marion, to commute back and forth, to be there for Cam and their children, but the stress was overwhelming.

“When the person you love is fighting for his life, you feel like you have to be strong, but inside I felt like I almost died too. I was numb.”

Meanwhile, friends and family in the Klassen’s tight-knit Mennonite community in Enderby were doing whatever they could to help their fallen brother and his family. By grace, there was already a well-established friendship between their church and the KGH Foundation.

KGH Volunteers and members of the Klassens’ Mennonite community

For years, the Klassen’s Mennonite community in Enderby has been host to young men from across the U.S. and Canada who provide service as part of their faith commitment. Many of these young men choose to volunteer at KGH, and as a result, a deep relationship has formed between Director of Business Enterprises, Nancy Wells, and the Mennonite host families in Enderby.

In the weeks leading up to the JoeAnna’s House grand opening, Nancy was busy organizing volunteers to help prepare for the home’s first guests. It wasn’t long before Nancy learned about the Klassens from her young Mennonite volunteers and their host families.

Being from a small farming community in rural Alberta herself (ironically, the same small town that Cam’s parents came from), and having taken the young men under wing for many years, Nancy felt a kinship toward this family. They needed help.

Cam lay in a coma for nearly three weeks. On Nov. 9, he woke up.

Still two weeks from opening day, Nancy reached out to the KGH social worker assigned to Cam’s case and began the process of ensuring that Heather, Jaci, Kade, Larry and Marion would be welcomed to JoeAnna’s House as soon as it was ready to receive guests.

“We called them our Kelowna unit,” laughs Heather. “Nancy Wells and the boys – they were our angels. JoeAnna’s House is so beautiful and the staff are so caring, coming here has been such a relief, there are no words. Being with my children… well, it’s helped mend a little part of my broken heart.”

“You have given me the most precious gift… being together with my children, while staying close to Cam.” – Heather Klassen, photographed with her family outside of JoeAnna’s House.

“What would I say to the donors who made this possible? ‘Thank you’ just seems too feeble. I am grateful beyond measure. You have given me the most precious gift…being together with my children while staying close to Cam.”

JoeAnna’s House is a remarkable gift in so many ways. It will continue to stand as a symbol of what can be accomplished when we work together. And as the days go by, and more families pass through its doors, more stories will emerge that will remind us that, despite what seems like an ever more complicated and disconnected world, there is never really much degree of separation between us.

Our village might seem bigger, but the values we share don’t change. Families helping families. We are always better together.

After nearly two months at KGH, Cam was discharged on December 19, and was able to spend the holidays at home in Enderby.

In October, 2015, Michele and her husband Sonny left their home in Beaverdell for Kelowna General Hospital, seeking answers and treatment for a host of symptoms that had rendered Sonny increasingly ill. For six months, Michele navigated treacherous winter conditions as she made the commute from her home to KGH to be by her husband’s bedside. The thought of being separated from Sonny was inconceivable.

It was an incredibly stressful and emotional time.

Reflecting on what JoeAnna’s House will mean for people like her, Michele says;

“JoeAnna’s House will mean different things to different people. However one thing it will mean to everyone is one less thing to think about. When you’re supporting a loved one in the hospital, you are pulled in many different directions. Not having to figure out where you are going to stay lifts a part of the burden.

When someone comes to JoeAnna’s House, hopefully they will find more than a room. They will find someone to listen, to help them navigate the system, some calm in the storm. They will also find people there who are also going through similar circumstances.”

“My husband believed in giving back, and volunteered with many different organizations over the years. When someone needed help, he was always there to lend a hand. So to carry on his tradition, I want to give back. Supporting JoeAnna’s House is a way that I can help make sure that people in similar situations will not have to think, ‘Where am I going to go? Where will I stay? Who can I talk to? What will I do next?’”

Michelle never imagined that from that day in October, Sonny would never come home. He passed away from cancer in March 2016. She chose to give a gift to support JoeAnna’s House and agreed to share her story, and put a face to the many wives, sisters, daughters and grand-daughters (and husbands, brothers, sons and grandsons) who wish to remain close to their loved one’s bedside when they are at KGH.

Charlotte Palmer was born early. At just 29 weeks, she weighed only 2.6 lbs, and has been in and out of the hospital ever since. At the age of one, Charlotte was diagnosed with MIRAGE syndrome, which is an extraordinarily rare condition; it is believed Charlotte is the only surviving child in Canada with MIRAGE right now.

Due to the complexity of Charlotte’s health, time at home as a family of four is rare and mom, Christina Palmer, who is on leave from her job as an RCMP officer, regularly transports Charlotte to either Vancouver (BC Children’s Hospital) or Kelowna (KGH) for treatment.

The Palmer family resides in Penticton, BC, and while a trip to Kelowna may seem ideal (compared to Vancouver), Charlotte’s dad, Rob, tells a different story.

“When Charlotte stays in Vancouver, we are almost always accommodated at the Ronald McDonald House,” says Rob. “Christina can stay right there, able to respond quickly if she’s needed, and my son and I can visit on weekends. While KGH is a closer hospital, we are not able to stay onsite, so are often rushing there in an emergency, which can happen at any time of the day or night. The highways are not always in great condition, and when your child’s health is at risk, driving back and forth can be harrowing.”

Christina echoes Rob’s sentiments.

“Keeping families together is critical, especially when you have a little one that’s sick,” she says. “The stress of being away from your home is one thing, and then the stress of having a sick child is another. So when you put them both together, it’s really overwhelming.”

The KGH Foundation has committed to building and operating JoeAnna’s House, a home that will provide a place to rest and relax within steps of their loved ones’ bedside. A place to be in community with others who are navigating a similar, difficult path.

It is with our deepest gratitude that we thank everyone who continues to support this incredible, and much-needed place for families to be together.

Zacharias Dear was born prematurely in Creston, BC, and promptly transported with his mom, Lisa, to KGH for care. After two days, Lisa was discharged, but Zach remained under care for an additional five weeks. With nowhere to stay, Lisa and her husband, Max, were left scrambling. JoeAnna’s House will change everything for families like the Dears.

In the words of Lisa Dear from Creston, BC:

“My son, Zacharias was born on March 19th, 2016 at 4:40am. Premature and weighing just 2lbs 14oz, Zac spent his first 35 days in the NICU at the KGH. Our home, Creston BC, is 425km from the KGH – which is about a 5 hour drive on a good day, passing 4 summits to get there.

I had a healthy pregnancy up until 33 weeks when I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia. My midwife was out of town for the weekend and asked me to go to the hospital in Nelson to be monitored for a couple of days. Nelson, BC is 73km from Creston which is about an hour and a half drive, passing one of the highest summits in Canada.

On arrival, my kidneys were spilling proteins, my liver was failing and my blood pressure was extremely high (161/90). I was told to pack my bags for 2 days. I asked if I should be prepared to bring home a baby, and my midwife hadn’t even considered that. I literally had 2 pairs of clean underwear.

At 1:00am, my doctor came into my room. He’d done a test around 9pm. At that point, he had no concerns and said he would do another test in the morning and then we’d be free to enjoy the rest of my pregnancy. My husband, Max, was thrilled to learn that we’d be home in time to watch his favourite team play soccer, or “football” as they call it in the UK.

At 1:00am, my doctor showed up in my room and said he couldn’t sleep. He said something didn’t feel right and he didn’t want to wait to do the test. Within an hour, I was being prepped for an emergency C section. My husband asked if I could be induced – this wasn’t part of the “birthing plan” at all – and the doctor said any delays could be fatal. Not just for Zacharias, but for me too. I can’t even imagine what my husband went through in learning the circumstances were as severe as they were. He was my rock throughout EVERYTHING.

Zacharias was born at 4:40am. I did not get to meet him until 9am. When he was born, he didn’t cry. The silence was frightening.

When arranging for transport, the Vancouver Children’s Hospital was mentioned, and it wasn’t until the last minute that we found out we’d be medevac’d to KGH.

Just a few hours after Zacharias was born, he was flown to KGH. I was unable to fly with him because I had just come out of major surgery and there wasn’t enough room for 2 patients in the airplane. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch my husband and my newborn son leave without me. I was unsure whether or not I’d even be able to fly out the same day to be with them. Luckily they came back for me 5 hours later.

I arrived in Kelowna that afternoon. I was fortunate enough to be admitted into a room near the NICU while I recovered from my C section, however, I was discharged after just 2 days. Zac needed to stay for another 33 days and I found myself away from home, not knowing where I was going to stay, with my newborn son in critical care. AND I only had 1 clean pair of underwear by now.

It was so scary, I didn’t know what we were going to do. Fortunately, KGH has some amazing social workers and Laura was able to connect us with the Variety Club and Cops for Kids – we can’t thank you enough!! These 2 charities were able to cover our accommodations and a few groceries for the duration of Zac’s stay in the NICU.

Although everyone did the best they could, the hotel was a 10-minute drive from the hospital. I was unable to drive for the first bit while I recovered from my c section, and Max was only able to spend the first week with us. He had to return to work and was only able to stay with us on the weekends. Because we were unsure how long I’d have to stay, I had to change rooms every single week.

Having JoeAnna’s House would have meant the world to me and my family. If we had the constant stability of knowing we had a safe place to stay for the duration of Zac’s time in the hospital would have given me and my family so much security in that time of crisis. Having a welcoming place where other families going through similar experiences can connect and support each other – even just knowing that you’re not the only one – will make a huge difference.

JoeAnna’s House will keep families together and would have allowed me to stay close to Zac at all times.”