By Evelyn Nussenbaum
Berkeley newborn Josie Rooney is struggling. Born April 4 with a serious heart condition, she has yet to see her purple bedroom or meet the two Persian cats lounging around her house. That’s because she has spent all but one day of her short life at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, undergoing one operation to partially correct her birth defect, and gaining strength for a second surgery that should allow her to be discharged. She’s still on a breathing tube. Her parents, Jenny and Jay, are on leave from their jobs and living in the nearby Ronald McDonald House, a residence for families with loved ones in the hospital.
Josie, short for Josephine, was born with a hole in her heart and a blockage in the valve that carries blood from the heart to the lungs, a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot with Pulmonary Atresia. If that sounds familiar, it’s because television host Jimmy Kimmel’s son was born recently with the same issue. Earlier this month Kimmel spent part of his nightly monologue disclosing his son’s diagnosis and subsequent, successful surgery. He also called for universal insurance so all children could afford the same excellent care given to his son. (The term “the Kimmel effect” has quickly become shorthand for the argument that the best healthcare should be a right, not a privilege for those who can afford it.)
The Rooneys aren’t as far along in the process as Kimmel and his baby son, and watching their first child suffer is agonizing. But they say the skill and kindness of Josie’s caregivers keeps them going; and one nurse in particular, who gave the baby a cheerful red pedicure, has inspired them to go public too, launching a social media and hospital fundraising campaign that has already blown through its goals.
Nurse Rick de Peña, who works the graveyard shift, surprised the Rooneys. A 6-foot tall, 240-pound motorcycle enthusiast, “He’s not what we expected to see in the cardiovascular ICU,” said Jenny. “But on his last shift with Josie, when she was still pretty critical, he painted her toenails bright red. She looked pretty. It’s a small thing. But it was a little color and joy, and we needed it.”
De Peña is modest — so modest he confesses, right away, that the “polish” he used was actually a red Sharpie pen. “Her toenails are really like little dots. But she’d had a hard day, with lots of procedures, and she was covered with gel. So I bathed her and during her bath she was so relaxed, I thought, ‘this girl deserves a spa day’. So I just did her toes.”
The Rooneys were so touched they consider Rick part of the family now. But they didn’t know how to thank him until Jenny’s aunt announced that she was painting her own toenails and calling the color “Josie’s Red.”
“It just clicked,” says Jay, who sent an e-blast to friends and relatives asking them to paint their toenails red, post pictures online, and donate to Lucile Packard and Ronald McDonald House through a link he’d set up. Jay figured they might raise $1,000 before Josie was discharged, but when donations hit $2,500 they decided to publicize the campaign on their social media accounts. Josie’s Toesies has raised nearly $4,700 dollars to date, with donations coming from all over the country. Friends and family have given generously, along with a college professor from their undergraduate days and people the Rooneys have never met.
“It makes a difference,” says Jay. “Sometimes this situation feels like a cruel, cosmic joke. And knowing people are giving from as far away as Louisiana and Mexico makes us feel loved and supported.”
Even Nurse Rick has donated. “It was very touching to have the Rooneys come to me,” he says. “We obviously don’t look for recognition, but our kids are prety sick, there’s a lot going on, and it’s nice to have it every now and then.”
To give to Josie’s Toesies, visit the Josie’s Toesies Indiegogo site. Donations will be split between Lucile Packard and Stanford’s Ronald McDonald House