On Friday, Sept. 9, the Southern California Hospice Foundation (SCHF) will host its 2nd Annual “Back Bay Soiree” at one of my favorite Newport Beach locales, the Newport Beach Vineyards and Winery.
Though it’s not a subject many of us necessarily like to think or talk about, the mission of SCHF is to provide a breadth of resources to patients who are confronting their final stages in life, their caregivers and their families.
My grandfather always told me that there were two things in life you could count on: Death and taxes.
To be sure, we all know about taxes. The subject seems omnipresent these days.
And what about death?
At some point in our lives, we will all experience the stinging loss of a loved one; maybe even have a near-death experience ourselves along the way.
And, “the inevitable?” It is, well, inevitable.
After all, the subject isn’t probably what you were hoping to read over your TGIF morning coffee. But with an important local fundraiser coming up to benefit an organization dedicated to easing the suffering of others, there’s really no way I can avoid it.
The subject of death in this case helps to point out the importance of supporting organizations that provide hospice care, some of the most selfless, critical and benevolent services that are becoming easier to discuss and access thanks to organizations like SCHF. Services that many, if not most of us, will need at some point for a loved one, or ourselves.
My grandfather’s words didn’t fully hit me until my best friend died of cancer on her 20th birthday. Years later, I would have the great honor of holding my grandmother’s hand when she passed away and still consider it one of the most intimate and precious moments of my life. In both cases, there were compassionate caregivers in the background that made those final moments easier for them, and for me.
SCHF Executive Director Michelle Wulfestieg herself is no stranger to staring death in the face. The vibrant Bayview Heights resident suffered a debilitating stroke requiring life-threatening brain surgery. After eight days in a coma and another two weeks in Hoag’s ICU, Michelle pulled through, but literally had to learn to do everything over – walk, talk, eat, write, read. It was touch and go from the beginning, with the doctors giving her minimal chances of survival, much less recovery. But with the help of others, including her devoted husband, recover she did, and eight months later Michelle went back to work at SCHF.
“I feel like I am doing God’s work,” says Michelle. “I know that God saved me so that I could come back to work and help others.”
“Because of the initial brain damage I suffered, I literally couldn’t do a thing for myself, and had to rely solely on home health to get by from day to day,” recalled Michelle. This, she says gives her a unique perspective on what many SCHF clients experience, and it motivates her each day to accomplish their mission of providing the highest quality of life possible with comfort and dignity.
When I asked Michelle for an example of what the money raised at the event on Sept. 9 would go to, she told me about Thomas Fogel, a darling 8-year-old with terminal stomach cancer who loved Legos, Star Wars and his hero, actor Harrison Ford.
Despite aggressive chemotherapy, Thomas’ cancer progressed, and with heavy hearts his doctors and parents decided to terminate treatment. Companion Hospice (an agency that provides end-of-life care) was called in to try and make Thomas’ life as comfortable as possible.
The hospice chaplain reached out to SCHF to see if they could help grant Thomas’ wish to visit Legoland. Michelle and her SCHF team quickly went to work, arranging for Thomas and his family to be flown by private plane to San Diego, taken by limousine to Legoland and given $500 to spend on any Lego toys Thomas wanted. The day was one the family will never forget.
Michelle also knew that Harrison Ford was Thomas’ hero and decided to take a chance and reach out to the actor to somehow arrange a special visit. She managed to reach Ford’s publicist who was noncommittal but promised to check whether it was possible.
Knowing time was short, Michelle was tenacious, and after a slew of calls, arrangements were made for the visit. On April 11, Ford walked in to the Fogels’ home with gift baskets for Thomas and his brother, sharing smiles and warm conversation with the entire family for nearly two hours. Thomas beamed as his hero helped him to unwrap the basket, gently pausing on each item to comment and laugh with Thomas. It was all Thomas could talk about the rest of the day after the actor left.
Three days later, on April 14, Thomas succumbed to his disease surrounded by his loving family.
For more information, to see Thomas’ story, or to register for the Back Bay Soiree online, visit www.socalhospicefoundation.com. To become a corporate sponsor, or donate silent auction items and raffle prizes call 877-661-0087.
Lynn Selich resides in Newport Beach and can be reached at [email protected].