Her journey from stroke patient to hospice director happened “for a reason.”
When Michelle Wulfestieg of Newport Beach suffered a catastrophic stroke at 25, she wasn’t surprised. She had been told a decade previously she might not see past young adulthood. Since the age of 11, the young woman faced strokes caused by an inoperable tumor clenched tightly to her brain.
Although the intensity of that first stroke left the right side of her body paralyzed, Michelle was able to resume a normal life, finishing high school and attending college at Chapman University. One course required her to visit a hospice center where she was assigned to sit with an elderly stroke patient. She spent hours with the woman, reading and encouraging her. Better than anyone, she fully understood what the woman was experiencing. After the woman passed away, Michelle knew her career path would involve hospice care.
Michelle began volunteering at the center. She quickly learned the procedures and techniques and was offered a position as the volunteer coordinator. She loved helping patients and meeting their needs, and the needs of their families.
Her second stroke, three years after her start at the hospice center, left her unable to move, comatose, finding no hope of recovery. She lay in her bed for eight days, unable to open her eyes, or speak, or make any movement. She could audibly absorb all of the conversations, prayers, and laughter emanating from her hospital room, even though no one knew that she could hear what they were saying. When the conversations between medical staff and her husband, Steven, focused on permission to remove his young wife from artificial forms of life sustaining means, he said “No.” He was not giving up hope. However, her eulogy was composed and plans to harvest her organs were put in place.
In spite of the fact that Michelle heard all of the conversations regarding her prognosis and doubts about her ability to ever lead a normal healthy life, she had an overwhelming sense of peace and what she felt was God’s presence. Despite all odds, Wulfestieg recovered. The inoperable brain tumor had vanished. Healing from such a severe stroke should have taken years of therapy, learning to talk and to eat again; but because of her tenacity, will and faith, Michelle was back working full time in hospice care in seven short months.
Today, as the Executive Director of the non-profit Southern California Hospice Foundation, Michelle gets the privilege of helping families who sit at the bedside of patients who are near the end of their lives. She encourages them to forgive any grievances and to talk to the afflicted patient regularly. Because of her unique experience, she has the ability to share that the patient can likely hear everything said.
For seven years, Michelle has gone above and beyond to not only counsel families, but help patients – both children and adults – realize their last dreams. She arranged for an eight-year-old boy with stomach cancer to fly to Legoland in a private plane and meet Star Wars’ Hans Solo, Harrison Ford. Other high-profile dream fulfillments have included arranging for patients to meet Oprah, Selena Gomez, Bella Thorne, astronaut John D. Olivas and The Weeknd.
Although the work can be emotionally challenging, being part of making these final experiences is a kind of therapy in itself. According to Michelle, “Life is not about quantity, but rather quality.” Long ago, she committed to making each moment count, not allowing disabilities from her medical past to hold her back.
“I have been able to be used in powerful and profound ways, and for that I am thankful,” Michelle shares. “My deepest belief is that everything happens for a reason. I think I’ve been preparing my whole life to do this work.”
To learn more about Michelle and her book “All We Have Is Today,” chronicling her journey, please visit her website at www.allwehaveistoday.com.