Pendo’s Journey

"I was supposed to go on a holiday. But I ended up in a hospital stay." Pendo Mbugua

In August of 2023 Monica and her daughters Pendo (9) and Sifa (6), and son Imani (11) were in their hometown of Essex UK, preparing for a much-anticipated holiday to the U.S. Right before the trip, Monica, a nurse, noticed Pendo’s lymph nodes were swollen and took her to the doctor.

The family doctor in Essex diagnosed Pendo with strep throat, prescribed antibiotics and cleared her to travel. “The doctor said to go on the trip and come back in two weeks for a follow up check,” recalls Monica. “The kids didn’t want to miss their holiday, so we packed up and caught the flight.”

The family’s first stop was to Houston to enjoy the museums, parks and blazing summer heat. “People ask why we like Houston so much. We’ve come here many times – it’s easy to get to, there are many things to enjoy, and we love the heat after the dreary cold of Essex!” laughs Monica.

Between the time difference, long flight and recovering from strep, Monica didn’t think too much about Pendo’s lethargy. But the next day, her daughter was crying, couldn’t walk long distances and showed Monica some spots that had appeared on her arms. She was also running a fever. Alarmed, Monica took Pendo to the hospital. Within an hour, blood tests showed extremely high blood cell counts.

“I’ve never seen so many doctors running around!” exclaimed Monica. “Pendo went downhill fast. Her HBG dropped to 5.6. Then they told us she had leukemia.”

It was a devastating turn of events for the vacationing family. “I had one child in the hospital, and my other two kids to take care of as well. I figured we would head back to the UK for treatment, but the Houston doctors told me she wasn’t going anywhere!”

Pendo started chemo at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital on August 19, just four days after they arrived in Houston for their vacation. Her treatment was just beginning, and the family was an ocean away from their friends, family, and the comforts of home. The social worker at CMHH referred Monica and her children to Ronald McDonald House on Holcombe Blvd. for the duration of Pendo’s treatment. “We wanted to stay together and be strong together,” Monica says, “Ronald McDonald House made that possible.”

Over more than 6 months, Pendo underwent cycles of chemo and immunotherapy. Despite her medical condition, Pendo was able to keep up with her studies by attending school inside the Ronald McDonald House.

Her teacher, Ms. Veronica – or Ms. V as she’s called by her students, loves having Pendo in her classroom. “She is a vivacious, inquisitive mind and a joy to teach,” says Ms. V. “According to her age, she should be in fourth grade, but she is mastering work at the sixth-grade level.”

“Having the kids go to school even during this time is so important because it means there is a reason to keep studying,” says Pendo’s mother. “She wants to attend a secondary school in Essex with a music program because she plays piano and viola. Pendo has big dreams, and I need her to know that this medical crisis is just a temporary stop on the way.”

Ronald McDonald House is a home away from home for families that come from all over the world to access pediatric medical care in the Texas Medical Center. The Houston House was the very first in the world to have a staffed school facility. By offering on-site education services, patients like Pendo can keep a sense of normalcy by continuing their studies in a safe and supportive environment.