Gwendolyn Westlund views life as a special gift and that every day should be treasured.
Westlund, 34, speaks from experience. She is both a cancer survivor and heart transplant recipient. Facing death on several occasions, Westlund devotes her days giving back.
She spoke to about 100 visitors Saturday at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn about her ordeals and accomplishments. She was among several speakers at Advocate’s Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network event.
The celebration honored the legacy of donors who offered life through donation. The Gift of Life organizers also mentioned those people who are still waiting for organ transplants.
“I was fortunate in some ways,” said Westlund. “I was on the waiting list for just six months. It was crucial that I got a heart in that time. There are other patients who have to wait years. Some die before a donor can be found. That’s why it is so important to have donors.”
Westlund’s health issues date back to 2002 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 21 years of age. She was treated with radiation and the cancer went into remission a year after the initial diagnosis.
But five years later, Westlund was told that the radiation that cured her cancer also caused scarring around her heart.
“It was very stressful,” recalls Westlund, a Willowbrook resident. “I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I had some broken valves and I was treated with medication. I made sure that I followed all the rules.”
Westlund said with the assistance and advise of physicians she was able to keep her heart problems in check over the next five years. She was taking her medication and was diligently following a healthy diet.
But after five years, Westlund suffered another setback.
“I remember one day during a work day, suddenly I felt awful,” said Westlund. “Sometimes you just have a moment where you know this is not good. I was transported to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. My fingers were tingling and there was stiffness in my arms. The next thing I remember back in May 2013 was that I woke up eight days later in the hospital.”
Westlund had gone into end-stage heart failure. Her health had taken a turn for the worst. She had to undergo numerous surgeries and blood transfusions. She received both a left ventricular assist device and a temporary external right ventricular assist device.
After waking up after eight days, Westlund learned that she needed a new heart and had been placed on the transplant waiting list. Westlund said she never gave up and kept a positive attitude. She then received the call that October that a donor had been found for her.
The transplant surgery was successfully performed by a team of physicians at the Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center.
“I had to figure out how to eat and learn how to walk again,” said Westlund about her recovery. “This was a slow process. It was tough for my family to see me like this. But I was determined to get better. My family has given me great support.”
Westlund was married a year before her heart transplant. She and her husband, Bob, went on a trip months after her operation.
“My husband is tremendous,” said Westlund. “He is my caregiver. I think that caregivers don’t get the attention that they deserve.”
Orland Park resident Anita Tracy also spoke Saturday at Advocate Christ Medical Center on behalf of the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Network. Tracy, along with her daughter, Patsy, speak at seminars and programs about the importance of organ and tissue donors.
Anita has been a member of the Donor Family Advisory Council since 2002. Her son, John, died in April 2000 but he gave life to others as an organ and tissue donor. Since then, she has supported the Gift of Hope’s mission of helping others gain a better understanding of donation. She talks to various groups and shares her views on donation-related issues.
“By donating my time and ideas, maybe more people will become donors,” said Anita, who has lived in Orland Park for over 40 years and is a member of St. Michael’s Parish. “Being on the Donor Family Advisory Council has helped me grieve peacefully and has made me a stronger person so that I can share my story and connect with other donor family members to help them through the grieving process.”
Patsy joined the Council in 2002 after witnessing “the beautiful outcome” of organ, tissue and eye donation that occurred through her brother becoming a donor.
“I couldn’t say no when asked to share our insights with others as a donor family,” Patsy said. “I knew nothing about donation and the transplantation process, so I needed to learn more so I could reach out to other people who had been involved on both the donor and recipient side of donation.”
Patsy, an active Girl Scouts member when her brother died, applied the knowledge she gained about donation to earn her Gold Award — the highest award a Girl Scout can earn — by sharing her personal story to educate the public about the importance of donation.
Anita, who is bilingual, talks to various groups. She has been able to reach out to Spanish-speaking residents.
“We encourage everybody to become a donor,” added Anita. “We are going to continue to speak and get as many donors as possible. We don’t want anyone to go without an operation because there are not enough donors.”
Westlund now spends her time participating in cancer walks or through her group, Recycled Life Warriors, by mentoring other transplant patients and their families and organizing community events that promote organ, blood and tissue donations.
The Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center recently launched a cardio-oncology program that aims to prevent or minimize heart complications that may be caused by cancer treatments.
“I’m feeling good,” said Westlund. “I’m still not back at work. I’m somewhere in the middle. But I am grateful to be alive. I want to help others and that continues to drive me.”