Two-time Caregiver Finds Meaning After Loss

Julie Wolfer, New York native and past Howie's House guest, takes kindness to a whole new level.

Julie and Joe Wolfer on the Gift of Life Howie’s House patio

Like many guests of Gift of Life Howie’s House, Julie has stayed here on multiple occasions. Unlike other guests, however, Julie has stayed here as the primary caregiver for two different family members, on two separate occasions.

Julie first came to us with her husband Joe in 2019 while they were awaiting an evaluation for a lung transplant. Joe had been diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis back in 2011. Fortunately, he was asymptomatic for many years and was able to continue to do the things he loved like hiking, cycling, and cross-country skiing.  However, in January of 2019 his health began to decline very quickly.

Joe on a walk outside the Howie’s House

Joe was in need of a lung transplant, however, because of certain factors like his age, they ran into complications with getting listed. As Joe’s health began to worsen, the need for a transplant became more urgent, so Joe and Julie traveled to Philadelphia and checked into the House where they would stay during their pursuit of a life-saving transplant.

The Gift of Life Howie’s House became a respite for the couple during a very challenging time. 

“I look back at that time at the House almost like a little vacation,” says Julie. “I felt like I was being waited on. Dinner was cooked every night, we would come down for breakfast and sit on the patio. I would go for a walk and discover the different areas in Philly. It was such a pleasant place to be.” 

While staying at the House, one of Joe’s sons was able to visit to celebrate Joe’s birthday, and they even had a past exchange student from Denmark fly in to stay with them. These were very special visits as it would be some of the last times that Joe would be able to spend with his loved ones.

By the time Joe was able to get an evaluation and get listed on the transplant waiting list, his condition was critical. Unfortunately, the call for new lungs did not come soon enough, and Joe lost his battle with IPF shortly thereafter.

After Joe’s passing, both his sons were able to stay at the House with Julie, and she said having that family support was so important during such a difficult time.

Joe’s younger brother, John, also had been diagnosed with IPF, but was asymptomatic like Joe had been early on in his diagnosis.

“John came up for Joe’s memorial service, and it really hit him that this disease was serious,” says Julie. Having been down the same road with her husband, Julie told John that as soon as he started showing symptoms that he should go to Philadelphia to Joe’s same transplant center. John followed her advice and started seeking transplant care soon after.

John’s wife has various health and mobility issues, so she was unable to be his caregiver. As all of John’s kids lived far away and had families of their own, so Julie selflessly decided she would step in to be his primary caregiver, a decision she made only 6 months after her husband had passed away.

Julie with her brother-in-law John at the Gift of Life Howie’s House

Thankfully, deciding to see a doctor early was the right decision, and John received his gift of life in August of last year. Both Julie and John stayed at the House while he recovered and have been back twice for post-transplant check-ups.

While staying at the House, Julie took advantage of many of the services we have available for caregivers. “One thing that was really an anchor for me was the support group I attended,” she explains. “I learned things in the support group that helped me a lot while I was going through the post-transplant process with John.”

Volunteering to be a caregiver again so soon after losing one’s husband is no easy task, but Julie says that this was something she needed to do.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘How can you go through this again after losing your husband?’, and it is hard, but no one else in John’s family had the ability to do this for him,” says Julie.

It gave me a chance to complete the journey that I started with my husband that was so abruptly stopped, I felt like I got to see it through, and that seemed important for me to do.”

Julie and Joe’s Family

Both John and his wife lived with Julie during his recovery, and Julie juggled her time between caring for the couple and looking after her mother, who had recently had a stroke. John is now doing great and has moved into a new home in New Hampshire with his wife. Understandably, Julie says she is excited to have some time to herself.

“I’m just looking forward to getting back to my life and seeing what my life is going to be like. I just want to get back to taking care of myself and figuring out where my life goes from here” she says.

Julie’s journey has been a difficult one to say the least, but she asserts that “although it’s not always easy, I’m pretty good at staying in the moment and not looking at the whole picture every day.” She adds that she is so grateful to have had a familiar place to come to during a time of such uncertainty.

“Gift of Life Howie’s House is really a godsend. I feel like I’m coming home when I come there.”

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