Faces of Howie’s House Stories

Four-year-old Layla stayed at Gift of Life Howie’s House with her family while her father received care in the hospital.

Layla had one big wish for Christmas: for her father to receive his life-saving heart and kidney transplant, something he has been waiting for since August 2023.

We are thrilled to share that Layla’s Christmas wish came true, and her father, Eric, received the best gift of all: the gift of life. Thanks to a generous organ donor hero, Eric received his heart and kidney transplant last Christmas.

Layla along with her mother, grandmother and baby brother were provided safe, peaceful lodging and access to all the other services of the House: home-cooked meals, a fully stocked pantry, transportation to and from the hospital, an on-site social work team, and a whole community of caring people.

Kelsey Pabon (left) and her mother Sandra at the hospital

Over a decade ago, past guest and lung transplant recipient, Sandra Pabon, faced a life-altering diagnosis of Lupus. This chronic autoimmune disease causes one’s immune system to attack the body’s tissues and organs. Over the next few years, the disease began to damage Sandra’s lungs, and she was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF).

After years of battling her condition, Sandra’s doctors suggested the only path to survival – a life-saving lung transplant. In 2016, she joined the waiting list, but her journey was far from over.

Sandra faced a challenging road because of the limited availability of compatible donors. Five long years passed, and it seemed as though her family had accepted the harsh reality that a matching lung might never come.

Then, in March of this year, the phone call that would forever change Sandra’s life arrived.

Sandra received the call that a match from an organ donor hero had been found for her, and she received her life-saving lung transplant the next day. There were some complications, however, and Sandra had to remain undersedation for four months in the ICU to minimize the signs of rejection.

It was during this time Sandra’s family utilized Gift of Life Howie’s House to remain close to her. Sandra’s husband, David, made a promise to never leave her side while in the hospital, and the House made keeping that promise possible.

Left to Right: David Ryan, Kelsey, Samantha, Kathryn, Sandra, David Pabon
“The House means a lot to him… It allowed him to stay with me and complete the promise that he made to be by my side.”

Sandra

Sandra and her husband David

David stayed at the House for over six months while Sandra was in the hospital and recovering. Their children, who had all moved home to help the family, were also able to visit whenever they could.

“This program made it possible for my family to stay close to my mom while she continued to fight for her life. It gave us a community to turn to full of people who were going through the same experience we were.”

Kelsey

One of Sandra’s daughters

Sandra Had to undergo intensive physical therapy for many weeks after she came out of sedation. Her family continued to stay at the House during this time.

“The House has been a value to me and my family… It would have been really scary to not be able to do anything and not have my family there everyday making sure I was OK.”

Sandra

Recently, Sandra was able to return home to Pennsylvania and is eagerly looking forward to driving again, taking care of her house, and making up for lost time with loved ones. She emphasizes that she is forever grateful to the House for allowing her family to care for her when she needed them most.

You can light the way home for families like Sandra’s today by donating to Gift of Life Howie’s House here.

By making a gift today, you are helping to “Light the Way Home” for the many families staying at the House this holiday season. Every donation, regardless of its size, makes a significant difference in these families’ lives, offering them hope and a path forward during their darkest hours.

Your support will help bridge the gap between our low nightly fee of $40 and the actual cost to provide our services, which is $175 a night. It will also help keep the promise of never turning away a family who cannot afford the nightly fee.

For those who donate $250 or more, your name will be placed on a beautifully crafted paper house, illuminated as a symbol of your support. They will be displayed around Gift of Life Howie’s House and serve as a reminder to our guests that there are compassionate individuals helping to ease their journey and “Light the Way Home.”

Joe Eitl is a Montgomery County native born with congenital heart disease. He and his family were told that he would not live past 3 years old, and that transplant would never be an option. Joe defied the odds and lived a normal, active life until he was 38 years old and his health started to decline. He was listed for a heart and liver transplant, and in November of 2020, Joe received his miraculous gifts of life. Joe lives with Down Syndrome, and due to the nature of his transplant he had many complications following his procedure. He was in and out of the hospital for over a year post-transplant, and his parents, Peg and Craig, relied on Gift of Life Howie’s House for a safe place to stay where they could be close to Joe.  

“Our days start at around 7:30 or 8’clock in the morning and don’t end until 7:30 or 8’clock at night, and that’s on a good day… we were dreading the idea that we would be a two hour commute every day both ways.” – Peg Eitl, Joe’s mom and caregiver.

While staying at the House, Peg and Craig received access to home cooked meals, one-on-one counseling, and a private room and bathroom to decompress in at the end of the day. The services that the House provides allowed Joe’s family to feel taken care of so they can focus on what’s most important, taking care of their loved one.

Joe is now 3 years post-transplant and is back at home doing the things he loves which includes spending time with friends and family and rooting on his beloved Philadelphia sports teams.

“To say that the House was a saving a grace is an understatement,” says Peg. 

Tom Fennell and his wife, Alice, traveled almost 1,000 miles from Iowa to Philadelphia hoping Tom would receive a life-saving heart transplant. Far from home, they found comfort and support at Gift of Life Howie’s House, which recently celebrated its 12th anniversary.

 “Howie’s House gave us a safe place to stay, dinners, and camaraderie. It was the complete package,” said Tom. “We were able to connect with other transplant families and it helped us on our journey.”

 Tom’s journey was unusual. Many transplant centers declined to accept him as a patient because of his age. Temple Health in Philadelphia welcomed Tom and, at 74, he became one of their oldest heart recipients.

 Tom and Alice stayed at Howie’s House many months post transplant but were finally able to return home recently. They rang the Chimes of Hope at the House to celebrate (click here for video).

 Thanks to a generous donor hero and caring support at Howie’s House, Tom and Alice can get back to doing the things they love. They have already planned a family vacation at their lake house and hope to travel to Mexico next year.

PICTURED L-R: Rick Hasz, President & CEO, Gift of Life Donor Program, Troy Ovechka, Jennifer Ovechka, Faith Osborne, LSW, Abby Wells, Talia Giordano, LCSW

For those undergoing the transplant journey, having a place to feel safe and supported during a medical emergency makes a world of difference. While many would agree that there’s no place like your own home, Gift of Life Howie’s House has been providing a home away from home for transplant families for over a decade.

This summer, the House celebrated 12 years of serving the organ transplant community. Since opening in 2011, the backbone of the House has been the generous contributors and dedicated volunteers that continue to support the mission.


Annual Breakfast Honors Generous Community

“It has been an honor to watch the House grow and change due to the support of this amazing community. The House completes the circle of care that begins when someone gives the gift of life. I couldn’t be more grateful to this community for helping fulfill that mission.”

Rick Hasz, President and CEO

To recognize their support, a special breakfast was held for the contributors and volunteers that help make the House’s mission a reality. The annual President’s Breakfast took place on May 12th, and was truly a fantastic morning where lots of laughs, memories, and milestones were shared. The event’s theme was “There’s No Place Like Home”, in honor of the home away from home that the community helps to sustain.

PICTURED TOP L-R: Jan L. Weinstock, Esq., Jennifer Platzkere Snyder, Esq.; Andrew Bowen, Burton John Mattice; Janice Schwartz Donahue, Karen Barnett, Barbara Katz-Chobert;Lesa Kramer, Catheanne Long

Rick Hasz, President & CEO, along with Jan L. Weinstock, Chief Administrative Officer & General Counsel, shared a few words about how integral the generosity of the community is to sustaining the House’s mission. They also shared some exciting House happenings and important milestones reached.

Past guest and lung transplant recipient, Jennifer Ovechka, shared the story of her journey while staying at the House, and the amazing things she has been able to accomplish after receiving her life-saving lung transplant.

“Since leaving Gift of Life Howie’s House, I was able to run a 5-mile race, work full-time as a medical assistant, buy a home, and above all marry Troy, my sweet big guy who never left my side. The House was crucial during my recovery. Every meal at the end of the day was appreciated, and every tidy bed to rest my head was valued.”

Jennifer Ovechka

Lung Transplant Recipient

In its 12-year history, the House has provided thousands of families with the care and services that they desperately rely on while on the transplant journey. Since opening, it has provided over $12,530,000 in subsidized care, over 316,000 meals, and over 88,457 lodging nights of care. Families have never been asked to pay more than $40 a night, and no family has ever been turned away due to inability to pay.

PICTURED L-R: Cynthia London, Dearrdra Hollingsworth, Johann Schneider, Beverly Schneider, Vivian Gano, Tom Gano


Volunteers Provide Valuable Support

Many volunteers help strengthen the mission. Rosie Lemansky, a donor family member and long-time volunteer, has been serving at the House since its inception.

“In my 12 years of volunteering, I have talked to so many of the people and they are incredibly grateful for this place. When I work here on Wednesdays, I see people that have come together that live in different parts of the country, but they’re bonded by their situation and they can relate to each other and I think that is such an important part of it. It makes me feel good to know that I am a part of this whole process.”

Rosie Lemansky

Donor Family Member

Although the journey home after transplant is much more than three clicks of ruby red slippers, the dedication of volunteers like Rosie, along with many generous friends have helped make the House a home away from home for thousands of transplant families.


GIFT OF LIFE EXTENDS ITS GRATITUDE TO THE COMMUNITY

FOR HELPING TO PROVIDE 12 YEARS OF HOME AT THE HOUSE.


Support Gift of Life Howie’s House

Explore ways to support Gift of Life Howie’s House and our mission to provide a “home away from home” for transplant patients and their families by providing temporary, affordable lodging, and supportive services to those who travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for transplant-related care.

Maggi and George at the Gift of Life Howie’s House

For New Jersey natives, Maggi and George, their life turned upside down 7 years ago when Maggi was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis after a respiratory flare-up she had while snorkeling in Aruba. They were told that the disease was progressive, had no known cure, and would cause permanent damage in her lungs as time went on. 

This news was a huge blow to the couple, who had just a year and half before and many of their favorite activities like snorkeling, kayaking, traveling, golfing, and hiking now seemed impossible.

For the next 7 years, Maggi would have to carry oxygen everywhere she went, go to check ups every 6 months, attend pulmonary rehab sessions, and prioritize living a healthy lifestyle in the case she would need a transplant. Despite all the challenges, Maggi and George remained positive and didn’t let her disease define their life. “I bought a mobile oxygen tank and we used it go everywhere… We traveled all over Italy and France, and even went on a cruise to Alaska. I was going to keep living my life.” says Maggi.

Maggi with her great nephew, Brian, at Disney World

Maggi also was dedicated to staying up to date on the science around her disease and would participate in studies to help further the development of a cure. Maggi, who is one of 14 siblings, also has an especially unique case, as the disease runs in her family. She has two siblings who have been diagnosed with the disease and two more who could have had it but died before they could be diagnosed.

“I wanted to be on the forefront of what science was doing because science was moving fast,” she says. “My journey was to have an outcome that would save my life, whether it be getting a transplant or finding a cure.”

A family photo of all 14 siblings and their mother

Maggi and George stayed at the Gift of Life Howie’s House for the first time back in 2018 during a pre-transplant appointment. Maggi heard about us through her Pulmonary Fibrosis support group which she co-leads with another Gift of Life Howie’s House guest.

Little did they know the impact the House would make on their transplant journey.

Even though Maggi was optimistic in the development of a cure, her condition was getting worse the longer she waited. So, in the spring of 2020, right in the heat of the pandemic, both her and her doctors decided it was time to start the process of getting on the transplant waiting list.

Within two months and after several evaluations, she was added to the waiting list for a lung transplant. Two months later, Maggi got the call that her lungs were ready.  

Maggi and George both knew they would have to stay in Philadelphia for an extended period of time post-transplant, and they found comfort in knowing they had a safe place to call home while she recovered.

Maggi’s surgery went off without a hitch and she was out of the hospital in just 12 days, which is much shorter than the usual post-transplant stay. While Maggi was still in the hospital, George stayed at the Gift of Life Howie’s House and was able to visit her while she regained her strength.

Maggi on the Gift of Life Howie’s House patio

Maggi has now joined George at the House and will stay here while she continues the rest of her recovery. They have made themselves at home here, and appreciate all the amenities we offer, especially during the pandemic. “The House provides you with everything that somebody would need… and it’s immaculately clean, you just have such a sense of safety here because you know that things are being taken care of,” says Maggi.

Maggi says that one of her favorite parts is that, despite the visitor restrictions, the couple were still allowed to visit with Maggi’s daughter, son-in-law, and two of their grandkids outside on our patio. George and Maggi have three kids and four grandkids between the two of them and enjoy keeping in touch by weekly Facetime and Zoom calls.

Maggi and two of her granddaughters, Olivia (left) and Riley (right), at the Paper Mill Playhouse

George, as Maggi’s primary caregiver, enjoys cooking and can often be found preparing meals for the two of them in our kitchen. During the pandemic and while caring for Maggi, he has had to continue to run his mechanical contracting business and has been using our library as an office. “It’s beyond comfortable here. The fact that I can walk 12 steps to the library and do my work in the morning makes things easy,” says George.

George cooking in the Gift of Life Howie’s House kitchen

George also has taken advantage of our Caregiver Lifeline Program by attending our support groups and referring to the resources available on our website. Overall, they both say that the best part about the Howie’s House is the people they have met here.

“There is a comradery here because you meet and make friends with other families while you’re eating dinner that are going through the same situations,” says Maggi. “There is such a diversity of people you meet here, you really get to hear all different types of stories” adds George.

Maggi, an avid kayaker, says she is the most excited to get back to kayaking post-transplant. The couple are both looking forward to golfing and traveling again, and have plans to travel to Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Scotland as soon as the pandemic is over. Most of all, the couple is looking forward to spending more time with family, getting home to their house in New Jersey and enjoying many more adventures together, which is all made possible by the generous donor who gave Maggi a new lease on life.

Maggi and her family at the 2018 Pulmonary Fibrosis 5k Walk
About the Gift of Life Howie’s House Gift of Life Howie’s House serves as a “home away from home” for transplant patients and their families by providing temporary, affordable lodging, and supportive services to those who travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for transplant-related care.

Click here for information on ways to support the mission of Gift of Life Howie’s House.

From a young age, Kirby was always active. Born in Memphis and raised in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, she participated in many sports including dance, gymnastics, figure skating, track and field, diving, rowing and cheerleading. Kirby accomplished a dream of hers by qualifying for the 84’ Olympic trials for gymnastics, something she had been training for since the age of 10. 

However, Kirby began experiencing health complications which forced her to spend less time participating in the activities she loved. She even had to stop working. Kirby eventually found out she would need a life-saving kidney-liver transplant to survive.

Kirby and her husband Scott packed up and traveled from their home in New Jersey to Philadelphia to receive treatment at Einstein Hospital. She was admitted on June 3rd, her birthday, and was quickly put on the transplant list. She and Scott were hopeful that there she would receive her life-saving gift and the help they were both searching for.  

While Kirby was hospitalized, Scott stayed at the Gift of Life Howie’s House, which was recommended to him by his transplant social worker. Kirby soon received her precious gift of life. After a successful surgery, Kirby remained at the hospital for one month after her procedure and then joined Scott at the House for a total of six weeks.   

“The staff members at the Gift of Life Howie’s House were always, happy, smiling and cheerful,” Kirby says. “When I arrived tried and weak in me wheelchair, they already knew my name and had everything I needed ready. It was peaceful, no beeping sounds from monitors and no unscheduled nurse visits at all hours of the day. I felt like I could exhale. I felt like I was home.”

Scott and Kirby loved the comfort of the House and the tremendous support they received. Scott would often attend the support groups hosted by the Gift of Life Howie’s House’s social workers. “If Scott was in a hotel, he would have spiraled,” Kirby explains. “We were so grateful for the love and support from the House and other transplant families.”

Additionally, Scott and Kirby loved the convenience of home-cooked meals prepared every night by Gift of Life Howie’s House volunteers and engaging with other families that were also going through the transplant process. 

Kirby loved that conversation at the House was so open. “There was never a need to feel embarrassed because everyone staying at the House had experienced something similar,” she shares. 

At the House, Kirby was able to work on her physical therapy exercise in the fitness center. She was also encouraged to continue her occupational therapy on her journey back to normalcy. When it came time for Scott and Kirby to pack up their bags and head home, there was a moment of sadness; it was hard to leave.

“Everything happened so quickly,” Kirby says. “The Gift of Lift Howie’s House has been there for us on our journey, during and afterwards,” Scott explains.

Kirby and Scott still to this day share bonds with many of the families they met at the House. They look forward to returning to see familiar faces when visiting for follow up transplant appointments and feeling the sense of community the Gift of Life Howie’s House provides. We look forward to seeing Scott and Kirby for their next visit here with us!

Since we opened our doors, Organ Recovery Systems (ORS) has been a proud supporter of the Howie’s House and has helped us care for transplant families in many ways!

“Supporting the transplant community is something I personally take to heart, and Gift of Life Howie’s House goes above and beyond by offering a comfortable and intimate residence for transplant patients and their families,” says Matthew Copithorne, Vice President, Sales and Marketing at ORS.

In 2011, ORS made a generous financial commitment to our mission by underwriting our kitchen – a capital campaign gift that helped us welcome transplant families home. Since then, many of their staff members have volunteered in our Home Cook Heroes Program to prepare home-cooked meals for our guests. ORS also generously supports our annual Kidney Open Golf Outing, which raises funds for our Adopt-A-Family Program.

More recently, they found another way to help by sending a generous donation of hand sanitizer!

“Partnering with Gift of Life Howie’s House has been so rewarding to us, and years later our team still counts down the days until we can visit with and cook for recipients and their families,” says Kayla Andalina, Marketing Manager.

ORS was founded on a passion to help improve patient outcomes in transplantation and honor the gift of life. Their support of the Howie’s House helps provide transplant patients and their family members with a place to call home while far from their own. We are so thankful for their partnership and look forward to serving transplant families with them in the future!

When deciding to accept the Development internship at Gift of Life Howie’s House, I can’t deny the fact that I had slight hesitation. I had worked so hard to maintain some form of normalcy upon my mom receiving her heart transplant from Temple University Hospital in 2014. Growing up, it had always just been my mom and me. When we found out she would need a heart transplant, we both were not only in shock, but incredibly scared. 

At the time, I was just shy of 18 years old entering my senior year of high school. I thought my biggest challenge that year was going to be applying to colleges; however, that didn’t come close to what I would be up against. I couldn’t help but feel completely devastated. All I could think about was my old routine. What my mom and I had done practically my entire life. We would get up in the morning together and I would dress for school and she for work. I would rush out of the door to catch the bus while she ran after me to ensure I had some form of breakfast. We would separate for the day until around 6:30pm when she would come pick me up from track practice and we’d go home for dinner.

This routine was so important to me because it set the tone for the rest of my day. My mom always sent me off with nothing but smiles and positive energy. It didn’t matter if we had an argument the night before or if I was just grumpy that morning from studying late at night. She always made sure I felt her love before I headed out the door.

This was a routine I would never experience again.    

For the first three months of senior year, I spent my time going to school and then rushing to the hospital to visit my mom, which became her new home.  I would sit and do my homework and apply to colleges. My mom was very adamant about making sure I was still getting my work done and taking the necessary steps to further my education. While college began to feel less and less important, I somehow managed to get through several applications with the assistance of my mom. 

Finally the time came! After three long months, which felt more like three years, my mom received her precious gift of life on November 1st 2014, exactly one month after my 18th birthday. It was the best present I could have ever received!

Now transitioning to life after graduating from Temple University, I knew working at the Gift of Life Howie’s House was the right decision. I was determined to not allow my previous hesitation to stand in the way of an amazing opportunity, so despite my own fears of revisiting my past trauma, I accepted the offer!

When my first day approached, I didn’t exactly know what to expect, but I felt ready. I entered the gates of the Howie’s House and walked through the doors approaching the Front Desk. Everyone was so incredibly welcoming and friendly; I truly did feel a sense of home immediately. 

It almost felt therapeutic for me to be in a space that nurtured and cared for people that were going through exactly what I went through. It was a powerful experience for me to engage with families on a professional and personal level at the House. I didn’t expect to feel such a rush of amazing emotions. I am so grateful for the Howie’s House and the experience I gained both professionally and personally. My last day will be such a bittersweet moment because I have curated such great connections with guests and the staff that I hope last beyond this opportunity.

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