It was 33 years ago when Cindi and Russell Westendorf met at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), purely by coincidence. Now, happily married with 3 grown children, they found themselves back at the same hospital, but this time for Russell to receive a life-saving lung transplant.
Prior to Russell and Cindi meeting, Cindi was a graduate student in Philadelphia studying counseling and creative arts therapy. Russell had gotten into a very serious motorcycle accident and was transferred to HUP, a hospital close by where Cindi was studying, to receive bone grafts. He stayed there for many months during his recovery. Cindi’s family, who knew Russell’s family, recommended she stop by his hospital room for a visit as she was already in the area – and they have been together ever since.
“I think one of my biggest reliefs was finding the Gift of Life Howie’s House, to be honest with you. That is when my heart felt better because I knew my wife was going to be okay.” — Russell Westendorf
After they got married, they settled in Colts Neck, NJ and had three sons. Russell worked as a stone and tile setter. A union man at heart, Russell loved his job, especially the fact that his hours allowed him to be home with his kids and his wife. However, it was very tough on his physical health and Russell developed a serious lung disease. Surrounded constantly by dust, insulation, and other hazardous materials, “it physically beat me up. Lung disease was part of what I did. It took some getting used to, but slowly my health got worse until suddenly I’m using 17 percent of my lung capacity, and started to have to use the oxygen.”
She is My Rock
Because of his illness, Russell was listed for a lung transplant in 2014. All too familiar with caregiving and support, Cindi, an art and trauma therapist, has been right by his side throughout his entire transplant journey. Russell could not be more grateful for their partnership, “She is my rock and probably the most giving person I’ve ever met in my life.”
After two years on the transplant list, the couple was getting into bed one night about a week before Christmas when they received the call that donor lungs were available. They rushed to Philadelphia, over 70 miles from their home at 2:30 in the morning and, upon arrival, Russell went right into surgery. He awoke on December 19th with the gift of life – a new pair of working lungs – thanks to someone’s selfless decision to say yes to donation.
After the transplant surgery, Cindi was able to stay at Gift of Life Howie’s House while her husband was in recovery. Russell said, “I think one of my biggest reliefs was finding the Howie’s House, to be honest with you. That is when my heartfelt better because I knew my wife was going to be okay.”
On Christmas morning, a few days after the surgery, the doctors moved Russell back into the ICU due to a complication. Cindi, who was staying at the House, got a call from the hospital explaining the situation. “I got up, so startled. I didn’t even think about it being Christmas but I woke up, got dressed, got myself together and opened the door and there were all these gifts [from the staff]. It was really special; it’s just a little thing like that that made me feel like we were in the right place at the right time.”
Recovery at Gift of Life Howie’s House
Russell recovered from the complication and was released from the hospital a few weeks later. He was then transferred to the Gift of Life Howie’s House to continue his recovery. After hearing so many wonderful things about the House from his wife, he had high expectations upon arriving: “When I got here, I was totally blown away. Everybody here is just wonderful, very supportive. The thoughtfulness that went into planning this place and the relief of having meals is unbelievable. And I love the fact that you can sit around and share experiences with other transplant patients.”
Though the couple remarked on many wonderful aspects of the House, Russell’s favorite, in particular, was the Home Cook Heroes program. This volunteer-based program invites people from all over the community to come to the House to prepare a home-cooked meal for Gift of Life Howie’s House guests. Russell especially enjoyed the variety of nutritious meals, “It’s all been fabulous—the whole concept that people do this for us is so nice. It has really helped me open up my pallet and try different things that I normally wouldn’t,” said Russell. “I wouldn’t even eat salad at home and now I am trying new things, like guacamole. It’s given me a new lease on life – healthy eating is important for my recovery.”
Russell and Cindi are thrilled to have a place where their sons can come for visits, a place where they can meet new families and volunteers and continue trying new foods. But above all, they are relieved to have a place where they can relax and work on getting Russell’s physical health back to normal. Russell says, now more than ever, they will both continue to live by their personal motto: “Be Positive—that’s my blood type.”