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Meet Michelle Wulfestieg of Southern California Hospice Foundation

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michelle Wulfestieg.

Michelle, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I had my first stroke when I was eleven years old, which led to the diagnosis of a rare vascular brain lesion, known as an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM), or a tangle of blood vessels and arteries. With no other options, I underwent two very intense forms of radiation, which caused permanent paralysis to the right side of my body. I had to learn how to do everything with my left hand as I mourned the loss of all the activities I used to be able to do – running, playing sports, and just being a kid.

Then on January 4, 2008, I suffered a second stroke. This time it nearly took my life as I slipped into a deep coma. The doctors didn’t have much hope. They had no choice but to surgically remove the lesion that was lodged deep inside my brain. My family was told that I may never wake up and if I did, I would not be able to walk, talk or see.

And then the miracle of healing, I woke up – free from the lesion that had threatened to end my life. I’m now recovered, but still physically disabled, and I believe that everyone has a purpose. Since my recovery, I have dedicated my life’s work to hospice care and have written an autobiography, “All We Have Is Today: A Story of Discovering Purpose,” which has won multiple book awards.

I am currently the executive director of the Southern California Hospice Foundation (SCHF), a nonprofit organization committed to enhancing the lives of terminally ill patients and their families. Since the organization’s inception in 2002, SCHF has served more than 2,500 patients, families and community members with its main programs providing community education and direct patient assistance.

I am a member of the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce and belong to the Omega Home Network, an alternative partner to traditional medical hospices who provide a loving home to dying individuals in caregiver crisis as a charity-based service. I have also partnered with UCI Medical School to fund the first Palliative Care Fellowship in Orange County and regularly host bereavement workshops to provide support for those grieving in the Orange County community through my home church, Mariners Church in Irvine.

I am also a member of the Women of Chapman, a group of philanthropic-minded women that has provided over $2 million in funding to Dodge College since 2006.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My road has been far from smooth. In fact, there were times when a road didn’t even exist and I’ve had to create my own path. My struggles include learning how to do everything with my left hand after losing the use of my right side at 11 years old. Being formally right-handed, I had to re-learn how to feed myself, tie my shoes, button my pants and wash my hair with my left hand. It was extremely challenging, but I did it. And that’s the theme that has been weaved throughout my life. When I played volleyball in high school with half my body paralyzed, it was tough, but I did it.

When I woke up from my coma and had to learn how to do everything all over again.

When I chose to return to work full-time to serve my hospice patients because I understood what it was like to be on the other side of the hospital bed, it was extremely difficult, but I did it. When I typed an award-winning book with one hand. When I built the SCHF from a start-up organization to one that is changing the landscape of the way we care for those at the end-of-life. None of it has been easy, but it has all been worth it.

Every day, we are all faced with challenges, but it’s your choice how you approach them. Is it an opportunity, or is it impossible? You decide.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Southern California Hospice Foundation – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
SCHF was established in 2002 to promote awareness of palliative care options for terminally ill children and adults, helping to enhance the quality of life for those at the end-of-life. Our mission is to deliver a breadth of resources to caregivers, families and patients who are confronting the final stages of life.

One of the primary services of SCHF is its Angel Assistance program. For those on their final days, the Angel Assistance program offers services that typically are not covered by medical insurances, Medicare or MediCal. These services range from providing transportation or paying electric bills, to fulfilling final wishes for patients, including ones who wish to meet their favorite celebrities. I have helped provide meaningful moments for patients of SCHF, including arranging private meetings with Oprah Winfrey, Harrison Ford, Selena Gomez, Disney stars Bella Thorne & Debby Ryan, Rob Dyrdek, Tony Hawk, the Angels Baseball team, Grammy award-winning music producer, John Lowson, and astronaut, Danny Olivas.

As a non-profit organization, I am most proud of the fact that we always put our patients first. Each year, we work with those at the end-of-life during their darkest hour, giving them a reason to smile again. For those who are struggling financially, food is given and overdue bills are paid. Homeless patients are clothed and provided with shelter. Veterans are honored and given a final salute. Families are reunited to say their goodbyes.

Children and adults alike are granted their last wish. Grieving families gain support from grief workshops. Beyond that, education about hospice is provided through tabling events, healthcare fairs, PSA announcements, conferences, and speaking engagements. All of these efforts contribute to our goal of enhancing the quality of life for the terminally ill.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Our vision for SCHF is to open the first home in Orange County, Calif., that serves as a live-in residential care facility for those at the end-of-life. This house will be a residential home where terminally ill patients can end life’s journey in a comfortable home-like setting. It offers an important option for people who may not have family or friends who can care for them. Currently, a home for the last stage does not exist in Orange County.

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Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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