Delays appear over, Ronald McDonald Family Room to open at Ventura County Medical Center

In her family's yearlong fight against leukemia, Michelle Chitiea has learned she sometimes needs a private place for a phone call her 4-year-old daughter Autumn can't hear from a hospital bed.

Sometimes she needs a place to cry.

"When you're stuck in a hospital for days, weeks or months at a time you need that," Chitiea explained. "Sometimes, you need to just take a step away."

A Ronald McDonald Family Room that provides parents with a break from the stress of having children in the hospital is set to open at the Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura Sept. 12.

The launch of the respite area comes nearly six months after a ribbon-cutting and four decades after community leaders started talking about the need to help families like Chitiea's.

Autumn was diagnosed with blood cancer a year ago. The girl from Newbury Park receives chemotherapy and is doing well. Her white blood cell counts are improving. Her hair is returning. She has been cleared to return to preschool.

But if her temperature spikes above 100.4 degrees, she'll be back in the hospital for at least 48 hours of monitoring. Her parents know what that's like – staying in a pediatric ward day and night, walking up and down hallways and sitting in a corner of a cafeteria to cope with the pressure.

The family room brings a place to wash a load of clothes, have a meal, use a laptop and relax for just a moment.

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"It’s a huge asset. Unless you’re a parent who has been in this situation, you wouldn’t understand," Chitiea said. "You don’t realize how important it is to be able to step out of the hospital room and take a breath."

The daytime respite site is the largest in the nation at 2,400 square feet and the only one in a public hospital.

One room includes a kitchen with a sink, microwave ovens and crockpots. It has a children's play area, a washer and dryer, an eating area, a living room and a desk.

A second area decorated with seascape wallpaper serves as a "quiet room." It includes three recliners for daytime naps and another sitting area.

After nearly a decade of fundraising led by the National Charity League Juniors of Ventura County and the Health Care Foundation by Ventura County, the $1.5 million project was completed earlier this year. Autumn Chitiea cut the ceremonial red ribbon with the help of her father, Adam, on her 4th birthday in March.

The opening was delayed by staffing needs. Now a site manager has been hired by the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern California. More volunteers are needed to staff the site but enough have signed up to allow for the launch.

The spring and summer surge of COVID-19 also pushed back plans, said Scarlett Sabin, the director who also runs a Ronald McDonald Family House at a Bakersfield hospital. Case rates have fallen in recent weeks, enabling the opening.

The family room will not be used for overnight stays like the seven Ronald McDonald Houses set up near hospitals in Southern California. It will be open seven days a week though hours may be limited until more volunteers are found. The launch of the quiet room with its space for daytime naps will also likely be pushed back because of staffing.

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The Ventura County Medical Center operates 46 beds for children and infants, providing what is expected to be a steady flow of parents and other family members to use the respite space. They will gain emotional support by connecting with other families going through similar trauma, said Amy Towner, CEO of the Health Care Foundation for Ventura County.

"This is a place where families can heal in ways medicine can't reach," she said.

Autumn is set to continue chemotherapy for more than another year and likely won't be declared cancer free for five years after that. Her parents hope they don't have to use the family room because it would mean she has been hospitalized.

But they are glad it is there.

"If you need to cry, if you need to make a phone call, you don’t want to do it in front of your child," Michelle Chitiea said.

For information on the family room, go to

Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at or 805-437-0255.

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This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Delays finally over, Ronald McDonald Family Room set to open at VCMC