OMAHA, Neb. — When Kate Plock first came from Pawnee City to the Ronald McDonald House in Omaha, she thought she’d be staying about two months — long enough for her then-3-year-old son Mason to undergo feeding therapy.
She never had heard of a Ronald McDonald House, but staying there would save her a daily 90-mile commute to Mason’s appointments, the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2tBFa09 ) reported.
What was supposed to be an eight-week stay has stretched to nearly two years — well past the Ronald McDonald House limit of 15 months.
“It’s been quite the journey,” said Plock, 27, her voice trailing off.
Mason was diagnosed with autism at age 2. He didn’t make much eye contact, didn’t talk. When he was frustrated, he would collapse to the ground, screaming and swinging his arms. For Kate, a single mom, it often was easier to just pick him up than to try to get him to walk calmly alongside her.
And then there were Mason’s eating problems.
At 3, Mason still was sipping formula from a bottle. The only solid food he would eat was Fritos. Even then, he wouldn’t chew them.
Mason was allergic to several foods, so he had learned to associate eating with pain and discomfort. Because he couldn’t verbalize what he was feeling, meals often just ended in an outburst.
Just small changes in his feeding — transitioning from a bottle to a plastic cup — took several weeks of therapy at the Munroe-Meyer Institute on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus. What initially was supposed to be eight weeks of daily sessions soon stretched to 10. By then, he was taking small bites and he wasn’t thrashing and screaming when food was put in front of him.
Still, Mason had a long way to go. Kate was determined to get him into other programs that could help him.
At the start of 2016, Mason became the first child enrolled in the Munroe-Meyer Institute’s SEEDS program (Starting Early: Eating and Developmental Skills). The program, a combination of feeding therapy and early intervention services, is designed for children with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities.
In SEEDS, Mason worked on eating a variety of foods and on his communication and self-care skills.
Now, Mason makes eye contact and is talking in full sentences. He calls Kate “Mommy” and says “I love you.”
For years, she had heard other moms make passing comments about their child using the word “Mom” too often — about how their kids never stopped chattering.
“I just wished my kid would say it,” she said. So when he finally did — when Kate finally heard Mason’s small voice say “Mommy” after she had waited more than four years — “I just cried and cried,” she said.
“I didn’t think I would ever hear that from him.”
There were many milestones she didn’t dare think of when she first came to the Ronald McDonald House.
For the first three months of their stay, Kate and Mason stayed mostly in their room if they weren’t at a therapy session. Just getting him down the stairs usually meant a violent meltdown.
“I was really depressed,” Kate said. “Coming to a house full of people you just don’t know … it was nerve-wracking.”
Back then, the idea of taking Mason to the movie theater, of a tantrum-free trip down the Walmart toy aisle or of enrolling him in kindergarten seemed nearly impossible.
But just last week, Mason sat through “Cars 3.” A few months ago, with a therapist at his side, he calmly left the toy aisle without the toy he wanted. And in August, Mason will attend his first day of school in Tecumseh.
Moving back to Pawnee City next month will mean another big transition for both Mason and Kate.
“I’m nervous about it,” Kate said. “The (Ronald McDonald) House has become like a home, like a family.”
People in the house no longer are strangers — Kate and Mason both make daily visits to Vicky Coleman, the house’s program coordinator. Mason pokes his head into her office and says “Hello, sweetheart” or “Hi, honey.” Kate often comes in to chat or debrief after a tantrum.
“She really doesn’t ever take a break for herself,” Coleman said. “I’ve told her a million times over that she is the mom of the century for everything she’s sacrificed for her son.”
Kate is hesitant to talk about those sacrifices. She hasn’t worked during her time in Omaha — driving Mason to therapy and pureeing all of his food feels like a full-time job. Mason has Medicaid and Kate gets child support, but living off just over $600 a month has been tough. Within the last couple weeks, insurance has stopped covering Mason’s formula, which comes with an out-of-pocket cost of $50 a can. Each can lasts two days.
Medicaid covered the suggested donation to Ronald McDonald House of $20 per day, Kate said.
“It’s not always easy, but it’s been so worth it to see him grow,” Kate said on a recent afternoon as Mason quietly played with Legos nearby. “I’m not going to brag, but I feel pretty proud that I’ve gotten him to this point.”
Mason still has moments when he gets frustrated. But as soon as he raises his voice or stomps his foot, Kate leans forward, looks her son in the eyes and says in a soft tone, “Calm down, Mason. Use your words.”
Often, that’s all it takes.
“Kate is amazing. She’s one of our stellar parents,” said Kathryn Peterson, director of the SEEDS program. “She’s as talented as some of our trained therapists at implementing protocol.”
Peterson said Kate’s sacrifices and her willingness to keep Mason in various therapy programs for longer than she anticipated are proof of her commitment to her son.
“I don’t think she’s ever really missed a day (of therapy),” Peterson said. “It’s true dedication and love on her end. It’s been really cool to see her connection with Mason grow.”
Kate credits much of Mason’s progress to the institute’s Severe Behavior Program. Mason was on that program’s waiting list for a year before he was accepted — just about the time that their stay at the Ronald McDonald House was reaching the limit.
So Mason’s therapist and Kate each wrote a letter to the house’s board of directors. The board approved them to stay past the normal limit — only the second extension the board had granted, Coleman said.
“I don’t know where Mason would be without that,” Kate said. “This place — the house and Munroe-Meyer — have been a miracle for us.”
Now, after therapy sessions designed to prepare Mason for interacting with other kids or sitting at a table for class, he’s ready for kindergarten. He already is reading, knows all his colors and loves to spell.
“He’s ready,” Peterson said. “And Kate will continue to be his best advocate.”
Therapists at Munroe-Meyer will help school officials understand his special needs and will check in with Kate via Skype.
Seeing Mason take his next steps is bittersweet for Peterson and Coleman.
“We are going to miss him,” Peterson said. “He’s become a clinic favorite. Everyone knows Mason here. Everyone loves Mason.”
The therapists have gotten used to “Mason the Ladies’ Man” coming down the hall in his button-up shirts, saying “Hi” to all the women he passes.
For Coleman, saying goodbye to Kate and Mason will be especially hard. She will miss his elaborate Play-Doh creations — often detailed designs of the Walt Disney logo or long strings of carefully formed letters. She’ll miss hearing about and celebrating his milestones with Kate.
But Kate has assured her that she and Mason will come back often for visits. And someday, when Mason is older, she’ll tell him about his time in Omaha.
“I’ll tell him, ‘You made so much progress and I’m so proud,’ ” she said, tearing up. “He’s worked very, very hard to get where he’s at.”
Kate has, too. It has been a learning process for both of them.
“I never expected this journey to be so long,” Kate said. “But I’m so glad we did it.”
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
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