When Michelle Wulfestieg woke from her coma after her second stroke, just days after her family planned her funeral, she couldn’t speak.
While it was over a decade ago, she still remembers in her groggy head, silently vowing that if she recovered, she would dedicate the rest of her life to bringing comfort to the dying.
Wulfestieg, executive director of the Southern California Hospice Foundation, is about to open the Heavenly Home Project, Orange County’s first nonprofit residential home for people who need end-of-life care, regardless of how much money they have.
Recently, she has seen an increase in calls from people desperate to find a place for their loved one to die.
“It’s the hidden housing crisis,” she says. “It can’t be seen driving down the street, but this is one of the bigger gaps in our county: a loving place for people to live their last days.”
It was while the then 25 year old was recovering from the coma that she discovered the power of a comforting surrounding.
“My head was shaved. I was on a catheter. I had a feeding tube,” she says.
But family and friends came in and out to check on her and hold her hand and read to her and sing to her and talk to her, even though she couldn’t talk back, and it meant everything.
These days Wulfestieg often gets up at 4:30 a.m., rising for morning reflection (and coffee) before her daughter wakes up.
She also journals, a habit she began the day she relearned how to use a pen after waking up from her coma. She remembers a day in 2017, while she was journaling on her couch in Newport Beach, a blanket over her legs, her two dogs Bear and Bosley snuggled up.
“I just knew that now is the time,” she says.
Wulfestieg began calling donors and hunting in earnest for a home. Last February, she found one. A six-bedroom house in Mission Viejo.
It was a rainy Valentine’s Day.
“It reminded me of how bad it was raining when I had my stroke,” she says. “It was exactly like that day.”
It was selling for $799,000. She phoned a philanthropist friend and told her she wanted to make an offer, but was short $350,000. The woman, who wants to remain anonymous, wrote a check for the balance.
In addition to donors, the Heavenly Home advisory council is comprised of community leaders, all of whom have had an encounter with hospice at some point in their lives.
“We jump up and down and scream every time we have a victory,” she says, of her team. “We hug each other. We laugh. We cry.”
Escrow closed in April. Renovations and landscaping started this month.
“Our goal is to make the most incredible space for people to come to and enjoy a beautiful environment filled with love,” Wulfestieg says.
There will be an outdoor patio for meals, a rose garden, accommodations for families to stay overnight and a team of visiting barbers, chaplains and massage therapists. Vigil volunteers will sit by bedsides round the clock if there are no relatives.
“No patient dies alone,” Wulfestieg says.
She expects the home to open in 2021. Patients will pay on a sliding scale, depending on their circumstances.
“Eventually we want to offer this for free,” she says.
The challenge now is raising enough money to pay for caregivers and an administrator.
“I think a lot of people shy away from end-of-life [philanthropy],” she says. “They think, ‘Why would I invest in someone who’s going to die? We’re not finding a cure for them.’
“It’s not glamorous, but it’s important,” she adds. “Because end of life is something we all will face.”
Her goal is to eventually open a Heavenly Home in every county in Southern California.
“It’s ambitious,” she concedes.
But then it was ambitious for a young woman who had just emerged from a coma, to plot a comeback as a caregiver before she could even speak, walk or feed herself.
“It’s a complete miracle I’m here,” she says. “And now I get to serve those at the end of their life, to give them hope and dignity and comfort.”
For more information, visit the website at socalhospicefoundation.org.