- The Willis Family Story
17-year-old Ben Otto Sunderman, a patient at Shriners Hospital, has been training Rhythm to be a service dog for Dogs for Autism since the German Shepherd was just a few weeks old. When Ben and his mom, dad, and younger brother Broderick traveled to Philadelphia for Ben’s recent spinal surgery, the House staff and volunteers welcomed the service-dog-in training as part of the family.
Ben, who was born with a missing L1 vertebrae and curvature of the spine with a tethered spinal cord, has undergone treatment at the Shriners Hospital in South Carolina, where the Otto Sundermans live, since he was six months old. However, three years ago Ben lost the ability to walk as a result of pressure on his spine. The goal of the surgery in Philadelphia is to ultimately help Ben regain some movement in his legs. “They basically rebuilt my lower back,” Ben says.
While this was Ben’s eighth surgery, it was the first time the Otto Sundermans have stayed at a Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House. “We knew we’d be staying anywhere between two and four weeks, and it would be a tremendous expense,” says Ben’s mother Debbie. “I decided to explore if there was a Ronald McDonald House.” When she requested a room online for the House at Front & Erie, she was still unsure what to expect. However, Debbie was pleasantly surprised upon checking in. “It is fabulous. It is way above what I expected,” she says. “It has been tremendous to have less financial stress.”
Debbie believes the level of support her family receives goes beyond easing the monetary burdens. “I’ve always felt through all these surgeries that the support we get is as important as the medical care,” Debbie says. “Here it is warm, inviting, and a safe place to refresh yourself. You have to refresh yourself if you are going to last. It is a huge relief to have somewhere to come, get a glass of ice water, get a shower, and climb into bed. It is just way less stressful than a hotel.”
Her husband Matt agrees. “I think you feel a certain rapport with everyone here because they are in a similar situation. You don’t feel like you are in a hotel with strangers where you have nothing in common,” he says. “Here you can talk to people and you know what everyone is going through. A lot of people we have met are here for an incredibly long time and you need someplace like this. You really couldn’t survive in just a hotel.”
One of their favorite aspects of the House is the meals provided through the Guest Chef program. “It is a huge cost savings; you’d spend $40 for dinner every day otherwise, and you wouldn’t even get a quality meal,” says Matt. “You come here and you get a nice home-cooked meal, and everyone is very nice and friendly. You can just relax.” When they return to South Carolina, the Otto Sundermans plan to volunteer to make dinner at their local House. “What a lovely thing for people to do,” says Debbie. “I am definitely looking forward to organizing that.”
Ben’s brother Broderick, who is in the sixth grade, has also found many things to like about the Ronald McDonald House. “I like to play games and watch television here.” His favorite part of the House? “The movie selection.” For the other families in the House, having Rhythm has been a special treat as well. “She’s a star,” says Debbie. “Everyone loves her.” “She has a perfect temperament,” explains Ben.
At home in South Carolina, training Rhythm is just one of the many activities in which Ben is involved. He is active in the Boy Scouts, the theatre, and the school band, where he plays the ukulele, guitar, violin, piano, and trumpet. He also helps take care of the families many animals, including: horses, pigs, goats, chinchillas, and sugar gliders. “I have a lot of interests,” he says. One day, he hopes to become an actor. Ben also hopes that training Rhythm will help prepare him for his own service dog in the future.
It is likely that the Otto Sundermans will return to Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia for at least one more visit. When they do, they will look forward to returning to the Ronald McDonald House. As Ben explains, “It really is a second home.”
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