“My experience at Gift of Life Howie’s House is inexpressible.
I spent 42 nights there while my husband was in the hospital. The Howie’s House is a home. When visiting my husband daily at the hospital, I would find myself telling him what time I would be going “home” that day.
When I did arrive home, I was always greeted by the smiling faces of the dedicated staff and the aromas of a home cooked meal. The rides to and from the Howie’s House were another gift. The volunteers, many of them transplant recipients, were a source of support because they knew exactly what I was experiencing. Of course, there was also a tremendous connection that developed among the guests.
Although everyone had a different story, and we were all on different steps of the journey, it was such a comfort to share my day with people who were walking the same walk as I was.”
–Judy, past family House Guest
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 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 Howie’s 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 Howie’s House
Russell recovered from the complication and was released from the hospital a few weeks later. He was then transferred to the Howie’s House to continue his recovery. After hearing so many wonderful things about the Howie’s 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 Howie’s 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 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.”
“The Howie’s House is a very special place for everyone. Not just the guests, but the volunteers too.”
Most donor families, while they may correspond with their loved one’s recipients, don’t often get the opportunity to meet the recipients in person. When a donor family member does have the opportunity to meet a transplant recipient, even if the gift did not come from their own loved one, these interactions can be very meaningful and of much comfort to them. This is the feeling members of Hearts of Gold get when they come to the Howie’s House. Hearts of Gold is a donor family support volunteer group run through Gift of Life Donor Program, and its members meet regularly at Gift of Life Howie’s House to participate in the Home Cook Heroes program, where they can interact with transplant recipients and families.
Diane Milbourne, Hearts of Gold team leader, explains, “Being at the Howie’s House gives us an opportunity to talk to transplant recipients and those who are waiting for a life-saving transplant. It is probably the first time that potential transplant recipients and their families come into direct contact with donor families. It is important for both of these groups to interact, to hear each other’s stories. We are happy to share the story of our loved one and reassure people that the gifts they are receiving are done so because our loved ones wanted to give the greatest gift of all, the gift of life.”
Having served their first meal just a few months after the Howie’s House opened in July 2011, Hearts of Gold has since returned three times every year to prepare dinner or brunch for transplant families. “We remember when we first started cooking, their weren’t too many guests in the House, now there is always a full House. The Howie’s House is truly a blessing for each family who is coming to Philadelphia for their medical needs.”
Hearts of Gold aims to serve meals that bring comfort to the guests staying at the House. Because all of the members of this team have had loved ones in the hospital, they relate to the stress and anxiety that caregivers can feel on a daily basis. The team explains, “At that most stressful time of our lives, we were not interested in eating, but knew it was necessary. We know it is the same for the guests staying at the Howie’s House after a long day at the hospital. Comfort foods are just one small way for our group to help them.”
From chicken pot pies to casseroles and soup, the group always tries to make a different comfort food. However, nothing can top the popularity of their trademark meal, “Breakfast for Dinner.” Serving the guests eggs, bacon, sausage and home fries, Hearts of Gold ties it all together by making their special heart-shaped pancakes!
The group volunteers at the Howie’s House to remember, honor and celebrate their loved ones. The members find healing through the Home Cook Heroes program and other opportunities with Gift of Life Donor Program. “The Gift of Life organization has been there for each donor family at our worst possible time. Physical activities, like cooking together as a group, releases the endorphins in our brains, which makes us look at life in a more positive way,” explains one of the Hearts of Gold members.
Interested in getting experiencing the benefits of the Home Cook Heroes program for yourself? Gather your friends, family or coworkers together and participate in this heart-warming program which provides an essential means of healthy support for transplant families staying at the Howie’s House. Dinners are served every night of the week, along with brunch on the weekends. These meals afford our tired guests with the opportunity to decompress, share their experiences and find solace in a communal setting. Volunteers donate their time and the food, and get to see the impact of their efforts on the families they serve, all the while learning the importance of supporting organ donation in their own lives. Come try it out! Click here to learn more about the Home Cook Heroes Program.
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