Many of you may remember Matthew Brown, also known as “Mattman,” who stayed at the Howie’s House with his mother, Kelly, back in 2014. He received his precious gift of life—a life-saving heart transplant—at just five years old. Now Matthew is a bright, happy nine year old boy in the fourth grade, and we are so happy to let you know that he is doing very well!
Before Matthew Brown was five years old, he’d had four heart surgeries. He was born with a defect that was weakening his heart. The day after Christmas in 2013, he was medevacked from his local hospital to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and listed for a transplant.
“I really had no idea how long we’d be away from home,” Kelly explains. Thankfully, Matthew received his transplant on June 25th, 2014 and was able to stay at Gift of Life Howie’s House with her as he recovered.
Kelly and Matthew stayed in Philadelphia for 8 months—from the day Matthew was flown to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to the day his doctors told them it was OK to go home.
During his stay, Matthew was also featured in our 2014 holiday campaign, using his brave transplant journey to help support other families like his.
Four years later, Matthew and Kelly still return to the House every three months for his follow-up appointments.
Matthew says he loves coming back to the Howie’s House because it’s “nice and comfortable and the food is tasty!” Last time he and Kelly were here, they enjoyed a delicious “Philly-style” dinner—cheesesteaks and corn dogs—prepared by our volunteers.
He also loves running into Ms. Diana at the Front Desk. They always have a staring contest and a thumb war. He’s a lot bigger now than he was when he first stayed here, but Ms. Diana can still beat him from time to time.
Matthew is a happy, healthy 4th grader now. His favorite subjects are math and history, and he still hasn’t decided what he wants to be when he grows up. He loves playing video games on the tablet and on his computer, and spending time with his family.
Matthew and his family are just one example of the hundreds that come to the Howie’s House each year navigating the difficult transplant journey.
“The Howie’s House really supported us throughout our journey,” Kelly says. “It was nice to meet families going through similar challenges. It really made me feel so much better.”
It was because of our generous community that Matthew and his mom were able to stay together and had a safe place to return as they adjusted to Matthew’s second chance at life.
Each year, families like Matthew and Kelly’s come to the Howie’s House for support as they navigate the difficult transplant journey, and it is because of people like you that we are able to be their “home away from home.”
We are so proud to have helped a brave boy like Matthew and a strong mother like Kelly, and we look forward to serving other transplant families coming to Philadelphia with you by our sides.
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.
“I was nervous the first time I came through the doors of Gift of Life Howie’s House.
My mom had been so sick for so long … she was having dialysis three times a week. So I was really thanking God that she had the opportunity to receive a kidney transplant. I came to visit her for a week over the holidays, and I expected the Howie’s House to be a big, noisy, busy hospital. I was very surprised to find that it was a beautiful and quiet!
We had a really special Christmas together. We made a gingerbread house along with some of the other families who became friends to us, which was really nice because our other family was so far away.
The Howie’s House was a great blessing to us and to a lot of other families. Please make a gift now, while every dollar can go twice as far to help other patients and their families when they need it the most.” -Yani Barrow
To help families like Yani’s who rely on the Howie’s House during a most difficult and uncertain time in life, a generous friend has offered a $50,000 Matching Gift opportunity. Like you, this caring friend wants every transplant family to have access to an affordable place of rest, delicious home-cooked meals, and a warm and caring community of support. So every gift received prior to the December 31st deadline will be matched dollar for dollar, ensuring that more transplant families will experience a “home away from home” at the Howie’s House.
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.”
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