SANTA ANA, Calif. ( May 18, 2017)—At age 14, Michelle Wulfestieg was told she wouldn’t live to be 30. She had survived a massive stroke when she was just 11 years old and a second stroke, thought to be untreatable, was imminent. For Wulfestieg, this was a revelation: life is not about quantity, but rather quality. From that day on, she committed to making each moment count, not allowing her disabilities to hold her back. She went on to join her high school volleyball team, travelled to distant countries, earned a college degree, found a meaningful job and married the man of her dreams.
Wulfestieg, a Newport Beach resident, is the May/June recipient of Fairhaven’s Oliver Halsell Care Award. Fairhaven Memorial Park & Mortuary, with locations in Santa Ana and Mission Viejo, created the recognition program in 2012 to pay tribute to individuals who have demonstrated exceptional care in their profession and community, improving the lives and spirits of those they help.
Wulfestieg, 35, first discovered her passion for hospice work by volunteering with Betsy, an 84-year-old patient who, like her, had suffered a stroke that had left her paralyzed on one side of her body. Wulfestieg felt an overwhelming passion toward helping the disabled and the dying as she so well understood their struggles, feelings and their desperate longing to be comfortable and pain free.
After graduating from California Lutheran University at age 22, she began her career in hospice as a volunteer coordinator. Her own struggles, however, were far from over. A second stroke at age 25 left her comatose for eight days. Outwitting the surgeon’s prognosis, she survived the removal of a brain lesion, responsible for her two strokes. While recovering and regaining the ability to talk, feed herself and walk, Wulfestieg completed her master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Chapman University.
Fast forward nine years and she is now Executive Director at the Southern California Hospice Foundation in Costa Mesa, where she not only helps patients and their families with expenses such as groceries, utility bills or flying their loved ones to say last goodbyes, but also has a stellar track record of fulfilling patient last wishes.
For seven years, Wulfestieg has helped many patients—both children and adults—realize their last dreams, including an eight-year-old boy with stomach cancer whom she flew to Legoland in a private plane and arranged for him to meet Star Wars’ Hans Solo, Harrison Ford. Other high-profile dream fulfillments have included Oprah, Selena Gomez, astronaut John D. Olivas and The Weeknd.
“Michelle Wulfestieg is an inspiration to us all,” says Rod Gomez, General Manager at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana. “She is steadfast, brave and kind—all qualities required to work in the hospice field. She has made a huge impact on so many end-of-life patients and their families by filling their last days with joy and love.”
When not in the office, she can be found advocating for hospice care, often by giving motivational talks drawing from her award-winning autobiography “All We Have is Today.” Wulfestieg also volunteers at Mariners Church Sunday school in Irvine and with her daughter’s kindergarten class. Additionally, she is a member of the Women of Chapman, a women’s group that raises money for Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
“I’m so honored to be selected for this award,” says Wulfestieg. “Every day I wake up with a profound sense of purpose and I pray that God will use me to do his good work. And each day he does. Hospice work is more than a job to me, it’s a calling. I want to raise awareness of hospice care so that all people at end-of-life receive the dignity and comfort they deserve.”
In November 2017, Wulfestieg will be presented her award at Fairhaven's Oliver Halsell Care Awards ceremony at its Mission Viejo facility. The Care Awards banquet will recognize six honorees’ accomplishments awarded during this year. Additionally, Fairhaven will make a donation on her behalf to the Southern California Hospice Foundation.
Visit dignitymemorial.com for more information.