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From the bubble to the spotlight

Chris Nehls survived his time in the ‘bubble’ to become star of 2009 McDonald House campaign

Posted: March 7, 2009 9:19 p.m.
Updated: March 8, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Nehls with wife Linda, a facilities planner at Technicolor, and daughter Samantha, 8.

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It was 1976 and like much of the nation, Chris Nehls was captivated by "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," a made-for-TV movie starring John Travolta.

Unlike most viewers, Nehls was watching it from a bubble of his own, a 10' x 10' sterilized hospital room meant to keep out dangerous contaminants as he received intensive chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 9.

"I remember vividly being on an exercise bike and watching it. The movie was realistic, it didn't seem weird to me at all," Nehls recalled.

Fortunately for Nehls, the three-month stint in a "laminar flow" room allowed his immune system to recover. He beat his disease, which at the time carried a 20 percent survival rate, and went on to become a director of facilities and space planning for Walt Disney Home Entertainment, as well as a husband and a father.

The Canyon Country resident is also the star of the 2009 Ronald McDonald House campaign, with a 30-second spot that debuted on Superbowl Sunday and a full-page color ad to appear in the April 3 "USA Today." Nehls credits the non-profit organization with helping his family through his childhood illness and has volunteered for them since he attended the first Ronald McDonald camp in 1984.

"When you stay at a Ronald McDonald House, it's like a fraternity. You have an immediate bond with people that are going through the same experience," Nehls said. "Now, I can see it in parents eyes when they meet me, that they can envision their little Johnny or Susie at 40 someday. It gives them hope. "

Life in the bubble
At the time Nehls was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the medical community was just starting to explore the laminar flow concept with young patients. Since intensive chemotherapy basically eradicated their immune system, the patient's environment had to be kept completely sterile. Nehls was the third patient to live in such conditions - the previous two had died.

"I found out much later that my mom had purchased a plot for me. The doctors told her the diagnosis wasn't good, that she should prepare for the worst, so she did," Nehls said.

Nehls described "the bubble" as the size of a normal bedroom, equipped with a bed and portable toilet. All the walls were made of transparent plastic, a vent in one allowed for sterile air to be pumped through. The Nehls family could visit, but had to be completely covered in a surgical suit, as no direct human contact was allowed. Only their eyes were exposed.

Food, which ranged from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to bacon and eggs, was also completely sterilized and served in Mason jars. "Everything was soggy," Nehls said.

Admitted the first week of October, Nehls was let out for a three-hour break on Christmas Day. Although he had been extensively counseled throughout the ordeal by child psychologists, departing from his plastic "security blanket" was unnerving for the young boy.

"The whole time you're in there, they tell you not to come out, that if you do, you'll get sick and die. Once they said I could leave, I was so afraid of walking out that my therapist carried me out kicking and screaming," Nehls said.

The family went to the Los Angeles Observatory that day. Nehls was released from the hospital for good in January, 1977. He lost his hair and wore a stocking cap, but tried to resume everyday life in Visalia like any other kid returning from winter break.

"Thank God I went to a small town school, where everyone was afraid of the nuns. Otherwise, the kids probably would have been cruel," he said. "My best friend in class was also the most popular boy in school, so no one would mess with me."

The Ronald McDonald House
Over the next two years, Nehls was driven to Los Angeles for ongoing chemotherapy by his mother, a former teacher who quit her job to take care of him. They would stay overnight at an economy hotel across the street from the hospital or with a friend in Glendale until 1980, when the first Southern California Ronald McDonald House was built. At the time, Nehls was diagnosed as in remission, but still made the trek for frequent checkups.

"The Ronald McDonald House started in Philadelphia, when parents of a sick child with nowhere to stay ran into a very wealthy donor. They told him what was needed for people in their situation and it was built. Since then, they've just continued to expand," Nehls said.

As of 2009, there are 271 Ronald McDonald Houses in 30 countries. Guests pay a nightly fee of $5 to $25, though no one is ever refused due to inability to pay - in those cases, the fee is waived. The nonprofit organization is funded by corporate donors (the largest, naturally, is McDonalds and their owner/operators), as well as individuals.

The Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House has 32 rooms and provides short-term and long-term housing needs. The communal setting features a large kitchen and dining room, where guests often bond, according to Nehls.

"Cooking together, gathering for meals and talking is so therapeutic. In the past, my mom would go to the hotel room by herself.

As a parent, I don't know how she didn't go crazy with everything going through her mind. At Ronald McDonald House, you can talk with other people going through the same thing," Nehls said.

Camp and beyond
Eight years after his initial diagnosis, Nehls was invited to attend Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times in Los Angeles for a week.
In junior high and feeling somewhat removed from the vestiges of cancer, coming to the camp was something of a shock.

"The first night, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?' There were kids that were missing limbs or had no hair. I hadn't had any relapses or been around any other sick children in years," Nehls said. "After the first night with my camp mates, I started relating to them and developing bonds. Then I never wanted to leave."

In a sense, Nehls never did. He has volunteered for Ronald McDonald House ever since that camp experience, whether it's spending time with the children and their families or helping to raise funds. He has also stayed close with Dr. Stuart Siegel, who treated him for cancer. Siegel was instrumental in founding the initial Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House, eventually overseeing four locations in the area, as well as actively participating in Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times.

When Nehls went to California State University, Northridge to study radio, television and film in 1988, Siegel became something of a second father to him. The duo attended hockey games and spoke weekly, if not almost daily.

"I was one of his first patients going through this treatment when he was a young doctor, but his impact on my life was so much more than medical. He's helped me grow up over the decades. I'll always be grateful to him," Nehls said.

Siegel gave away Nehl's wife, Linda, a director of facilities at Technicolor, at their 1998 wedding. The couple has a daughter, Samantha, 8. The Nehls moved from Burbank to Canyon Country five years ago.

A natural role
When Nehls received an inquiry from Ronald McDonald House Charities about appearing in a television and print campaign, he didn't hesitate.

"I got the call on a Friday, a casting director came to my office to do mock scenes on Monday, and we shot the commercial on Wednesday," Nehls said.

The campaign focuses on a little girl taking pennies from her father's loafers to put into a Ronald McDonald House collection box at her local McDonald's. When Nehls, as the father, sees what his daughter has done, he flashes back to his experience with the charity. No words are exchanged between the duo, but a world of understanding passes between them during the voiceover.

After its debut Superbowl Sunday, Nehls was inundated with well wishes. "I told my boss I owe the company a day's work, because of all the calls and e-mails I answered," he said. "It was great."

Out of five children who received the "bubble" treatment, Nehls is the sole "bubble" survivor. He has been completely in remission for two decades and feels compelled to continue working on behalf of those who aren't as fortunate.

"When you go to the camps, you see kids who were in remission for four or five years get sick again and die. I'm very lucky and very blessed and I don't know why," he said. "The Ronald McDonald House gives people a platform to not have to go through childhood illnesses alone. I couldn't see anything keeping me away."

For more information on Ronald McDonald House charities, visit www.rmhc.org.

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