The Clyde F. Barker Penn Transplant House serves as a home away from home for pre- and post-transplant patients and their families. It was named for the Penn surgeon who performed the first successful kidney transplant at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and was also a longtime chair of Surgery in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Since the Transplant House opened in 2011, its 12 guest rooms (each accommodating up to four people), kitchen, fitness and dining rooms have provided affordable, comfortable, and convenient accommodations for 1,500 families. But, while offering much to families and patients, a big part of what truly makes the house so special are its volunteer guest chefs.
As Kirsten King, Operations manager, explained, most transplant families leave the House early to spend time with their loved ones at HUP. Meals often consist of grabbing fast food or going to an expensive restaurant. Thanks to guest chefs, there’s a wonderful alternative: “home-cooked” meals that nourish and fortify.
Guest chefs prepare meals at the House two to three times a week. Sometimes they’re employees from HUP, for example, staff from Social Work and the Heart Vascular Center cook monthly meals. Local college students – mostly from the sororities and fraternities of the University of Pennsylvania – come every other week.
And then there’s Julia Lavenberg, PhD, RN, a research analyst from the Center for Evidence Based Practice. For the past year, she has come to the House every week … to bake desserts. “I couldn’t afford to do weekly meals [guest chefs pay for all ingredients] but I wanted to make a commitment to the families, to create a warm, welcoming, safe and snuggly environment when they return from visiting with their loved one in the hospital.”
Sometimes Lavenberg makes “fruit breads” (like banana or pumpkin). Other times she’ll bake cookies or cakes. And the aromas emanating from the kitchen draw patients and families in. “They come in to talk with me but also really seem to connect and talk with each other in ways that only people going through the same experience can,” she said.
Lavenberg comes to the House after working a full day – often 10 hours -- and stays two to three hours preparing the goodies and talking with the guests. “I actually get more out of it than they do,” said the former critical care and cardiac rehab nurse. “When I worked in the ICU or ED, I felt privileged to be a part of the patients’ lives. That’s how I feel when I’m at the Transplant House.
“I’m never exhausted when I leave… the experience is uplifting,” she said. “Talking with guests, learning their stories makes me see my life from a whole different perspective.”
Forming close relationships with many of the guests, especially those staying long-term, isn’t uncommon at the house. And, thanks to being Facebook “friends” with many of the former guests, King receives welcome updates about how the patients are doing. “You really become a part of their family while they’re here. Some people even send my son birthday cards,” she said.
King also receives emails and letters, thanking her for all she and the House offered during their times of need. One guest called it “a lifesaver. I can’t tell you what a blessing it was.”
Their gratitude often takes the form of gifts. “One woman dropped by with two bags of groceries [for the house pantry], gave me a huge hug, and told me how helpful this place was,” King said. Another purchased a new set of pots for the kitchen. “We also get cases of Keurig coffee cups every month from another family member. We go through that very quickly,” she said. “It’s second only to oxygen here!”
Photo caption: Julia Lavenberg bakes weekly desserts for the Transplant House guests.
Did You Know?
The Penn Transplant Institute at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania performs more solid organ transplants a year than any other transplant program in the region. In fact, it has the highest volume of all solid organ transplant centers in the country, with outcomes that meet or exceed national averages on all organ transplants. Most recently, a highly skilled, specially trained team from Penn and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia performed the world’s first double hand transplant in a pediatric patient.