Last Christmas was difficult for the Weidner family. A fake Christmas tree sat in their living room undecorated. One wreath hung on their front door. The family couldn’t light a fire they could gather around because they feared Karen would start coughing again. “I didn’t even know if I could get up to celebrate Christmas,” Karen says as she sits with me in the living room at the Howie’s House.
Karen Weidner was waiting for “the call” that the precious gift of a new set of lungs was available for her. On a plane trip to Italy, Karen developed a cough that never went away. After a biopsy and bronchoscopy, she was diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis—inflammation of the lungs caused by an allergen. Karen’s doctors could not identify specifically what was triggering this cough, so she and her husband Mark purchased air filter cleaners to clean their environment as much as possible. One of their biggest fears was having to get rid of their dogs.
“My spirits have been nothing but high here. We’re seeing doctors three times a week. I don’t know what we would’ve down without Howie’s House.” — Karen Weidner
Most days, Karen spent time between her bed and the couch because that was all she could do. “I would pick up the phone, say 2 sentences, and start coughing,” she recalls. Karen would panic when she’d have to go upstairs to bed each night. Mark had to place a chair at the top of the steps so she could sit down and catch her breath after climbing them. “I was miserable knowing I had to do this every night,” she says. When she made it up the stairs, it would take her an hour to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth, and wash her face.
Karen also lost a significant amount of weight, so doctors gave her a feeding tube. That’s when her friends could tell something was really wrong. Her doctors couldn’t come up with a solution for her—medication or a special diet did not seem to be helping. Finally, they placed her on the transplant list and suggested she go to a transplant center hospital in Philadelphia.
When she arrived in Philadelphia, Karen was immediately admitted and given a second evaluation where she was found to be sick enough to need a transplant and well enough to withstand the surgery. She spent about five days in the hospital until she was cleared to continue waiting at her home in northern New Jersey.
The Ultimate Christmas Gift
On Christmas Day, Karen received her call at 3:00 in the morning. Her doctors said a generous donor had selflessly donated a set of lungs they called a perfect fit. The Weidners made it to Philadelphia by 6:30 that morning. “I didn’t see another set of headlights for 25 miles,” Mark says. When they arrived, 30 nurses were waiting behind the counter. “I thought they were throwing a party for me,” Karen says.
Karen’s surgery was successful. She stayed in the hospital for 17 days post-operation and then came to the Howie’s House with Mark after they were referred by their hospital’s social worker. Karen claims the Howie’s House is one of the reasons she’s made it through her recovery.
“My spirits have been nothing but high here. We’re seeing doctors three times a week. I don’t know what we would’ve down without this place,” Karen says.
“It’s a sanctuary. The services make life easier for you.” Mark says.
When asked about the future, Karen says: “I have a lot of goals—I want to see my kids more, take one last shot at my business. I want to walk my last daughter down the aisle.”
Both Karen and Mark agree talking with other guests going through similar experiences has helped them get through this difficult process. “I want to be everyone’s cheerleader here,” Karen says.
Many people in the Weidner’s community have heard about their struggle. One young girl from their church asked Santa to bring Karen lungs. She also wrote Karen a letter wishing her a successful recovery.
“We’ve been blessed unbelievably,” she says.