By Anna-Claire Terry
Seven-year-old Raylee Wright from Valley was recently named the world-wide poster child of the Ronald McDonald Foundation. It was Wright’s resilience and the touching story of how Ronald McDonald has impacted the lives of her and her great-grandfather Gene White that put her in the international spotlight.
Although Wright cannot speak, her great-grandfather often shares how her life has been saved time and time again because of Children’s Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House. White and his late wife Cynthia took care of Raylee since she was six months old and suffering from infantile spasms. Since his wife’s death in January, Gene is Wright’s sole guardian and has the responsibility of seeing to her medical needs at all times.
Wright has faced health issues and disabilities throughout her life. She was born with an abnormal microarray on her seventh chromosome. “According to the doctors, that meant that she would never walk or talk. Some children can get to where they can stumble a little or say a few words, but normally, they don’t. It slows down the developmental process tremendously. For the first year and a half of her life, she didn’t make a sound,” White said. After being diagnosed, Wright began to have 30 to 60 seizures a day that would take three years to get under control with the help of Dr. William Watson at Children’s Rehabilitation Services in Opelika. At four years old, Wright was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma. “That’s just a nice way to say ‘deadly cancer,’” Gene said. “Without proper treatment, death was in three to five months. It’s one of the easiest forms of lymphoma to get into remission, but it’s one of the very hardest forms to keep from relapsing.” Wright endured 27 months of chemotherapy in Children’s Hospital of Birmingham. “It was very rigid and strong chemo. Talk about a blind roller coaster ride, now there’s one for you. I can’t tell you how many emergencies we had.” At Children’s Hospital, children are given a bead for a necklace every time they go through something or have a procedure done. Different color beads represent various things like chemo treatments, blood work, nights in the hospital and medication problems. Wright now has 14, necklaces, that is. “It’s shocking when you look at how much the child has been through,” Gene said.
Gene said the Ronald McDonald House was a blessing to his family because it kept Wright close to the hospital. “With Raylee, all normal precautions go out the window. A fever of 100 could be life threatening,” he said. There are not any emergency facilities equipped to help Wright besides Children’s Hospital. One night, after making a last minute decision to stay at the Ronald McDonald House instead of driving back to Valley, Wright fell ill and had a fever. Gene was able to run her across the street to the hospital where he was told his great-granddaughter would not have made it, had he waited a few more minutes. She had gone into septic shock, and the Whites almost lost her.
The close proximity of the Ronald McDonald House to Children’s Hospital saved Wright’s life. “If we had been on our way home instead of given a place to stay, she would have died,” Gene said. He went on to talk about other ways the Ronald McDonald House has helped his family. “We spent 27 months either in the hospital itself or across the street at the Ronald McDonald House. Imagine the impact that would have on a family. We have a home, just like anybody else- a mortgage payment, a car payment and everything else,” he said. “Our budget wouldn’t allow us to pay for two residences. If we had not been able to stay at the Ronald McDonald House, we would have lost everything.”
Wright finally completed her chemotherapy and has been in remission. However, complications have been ongoing since June 2014. “We’ve made over 100 trips to Birmingham and we go from blood test to blood test,” Gene said. When Wright began chemotherapy, she had to stop taking her medicine for the seizures because it was attacking her bone marrow. “Raylee was walking on a tight rope with lymphoma trying to kill her on one side and chemotherapy trying to kill her on the other. When they took away her seizure drugs, it was like shaking the rope,” Gene said. Hardship continued to find the Whites when Cynthia was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in April of 2015. Gene cared for Wright in Birmingham while his wife went through chemotherapy and radiation at home. Cynthia lost her battle with cancer on January 14, but she was able to spend time with her husband and Wright at the Ronald McDonald House in her final months.
When executives of the Ronald McDonald Foundation got wind of Gene and Raylee’s story, Gene was asked to speak and create a video for the foundation’s gala in September. After the event, a chief executive from the global branch of the foundation spoke to Gene about allowing the video to go world wide. “I gave them permission to share our story with the board of directors and told them if they wanted me and Raylee to come dance on the courthouse steps, we’d do it. We love them and everything they have done for us.” Gene said. Soon after, Wright was named the world-wide poster child, and people are now reading her story in every language. The C.E.O. of the world-wide foundation sent out a Christmas card to different corporations. inside the card, Wright and Gene are pictured. “It if helps them make one cent, I’m for it,” Gene said.
Wright is still in remission and travels to Birmingham with Gene every 30 days for blood work . She is enrolled in special education classes at her school and enjoys playing in the fountain at Children’s Hospital, participating in Opelika’s Miracle League, going for walks and swinging and rocking in her chair with her grandfather in the afternoons. Gene said he and Wright live life one day at a time and enjoy the little things. They find comfort and support in their church family at Holy Family Catholic Church.
“She’s a little time bomb. Today is Wednesday, and I’m not even thinking about Thursday. That’s how we live, but that’s ok,” he said. “ The Ronald McDonald foundation is so special to us, and Raylee would not be alive today without them.”