Heart failure team adopts local families for the holidays

Tequila Wilson was watching the news around Thanksgiving when a story highlighting families in need caught her eye.

UF Health Shands Transplant Center’s “Santa committee” went Christmas shopping for 16 local families in need.

Wilson, a transplant assistant with the UF Health Shands Transplant Center, recalls a mother and father in tears describing how they had skipped meals so their three children could eat.

“I didn’t know how I could help but I knew I wanted to help,” she said.

Wilson had coordinated donations to local nursing homes in the past, but never to multiple families. She decided to speak with her boss, Juan Aranda, Jr., M.D., FACC, a professor of medicine and chief of cardiology in the UF College of Medicine, and pick his brain about her holiday call to action.

“Dr. Aranda, I want to ask you a question. Can we support three families?” Wilson recalled her conversation with her boss.

“I’ll do you one better,” Aranda replied. “We’ll support five.”

Grateful and excited, Wilson first called on Inés Rios, M.S.W., a clinical social worker, to help her identify Alachua County families in need.

Rios referred her to Catholic Charities USA’s Gainesville office, which provided the names of six local families, and local public schools. With the help of multiple social workers through the Alachua County School Board, 10 more families were added to the list, resulting in a total of 16 families in need for the holidays.

During a team meeting, Wilson explained how she had collected the names of 11 more families than she had originally promised and suggested a lottery system where five families would be randomly chosen from the list of 16 for the center to “adopt.”

“We’re not doing a lottery,” Aranda said. “We’re doing all 16.”

Santa and his “elves” (from L-R): Christopher Wheeler; Junior “Gene” Rollins; Juan Aranda, Jr., M.D., FACC; and Eldred McLamb take a break from wrapping to pose for a photo. (Photo by Louis Brems, UF Health Creative Services)

Working through the school social workers, Wilson distributed wish lists to the 16 families to better understand their individual needs. The wish lists were separated into two categories: “Things I want” versus “Things I need.”

Wilson admits she cried on the phone speaking with the social workers, especially after hearing what some of the families wrote on their wish lists.

“When families are putting toilet paper on their Christmas wish list … it really breaks your heart.” Wilson said.

Clothes and bedding were the biggest requests, according to Wilson. One family needed toothbrushes and one child wrote “nothing in particular” under her “Things I want” section, but wrote “shoes” under “Things I need.”

Wilson sprang into action, recruiting nurse practitioner Sara Kolp, APRN, to lead the “Santa committee” with her.

“She does all of our calendars and she’s very good with organization and keeping things together. I’m like, ‘We definitely have to have Sara!’” Wilson said.

Kolp took each family’s wish list and created one large spreadsheet, organized by family, with each child’s needs and wants. Together, she and Wilson spread the word and collected donations from co-workers, family and friends.

Patient Christopher Wheeler was in the holiday spirit on Dec. 16, donning a festive ensemble at the Unit 66 gift-wrapping event. (Photo by Louis Brems, UF Health Creative Services)

From Dec. 12 through Dec. 13, the Santa committee went shopping for their families, hitting stores like Burlington, Target, Big Lots, Walmart and Old Navy. Trinity’s Day Spa and Piel. Esthetics, two Gainesville spas, even donated gift cards for the parents of the families when they heard about the Christmas project.

On Wednesday, Dec. 16, the Santa committee called on “Santa’s elves” to assist with wrapping the gifts. The “elves,” better known as Christopher Wheeler, Junior “Gene” Rollins and Eldred McLamb, are all patients of the UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital Cardiac & Vascular Med-Surg Telemetry Unit 66.

This holiday season, Wheeler, Rollins and McLamb will be awaiting heart transplants at the UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital. Kolp said she hoped that wrapping gifts for the less fortunate would put the Unit 66 patients in the “Christmas giving spirit” and provide some normalcy.

Wheeler even managed to pull off a surprise costume change, leaving the Unit 66 conference room for an alleged bathroom break and returning in a festive suit.

Spirits were high among employees and patients alike, with staff from other units also joining the festivities, wrapping gifts and supporting the Santa committee. UF Health Shands Supply Chain Services provided boxes on short notice to organize each family’s gifts.

Boxes for organizing each family’s presents were provided by UF Health Shands Supply Chain Services.

“I personally hope that we can show [the families] that during these difficult times, there are people that care, that we watch out for each other, that a random act of kindness goes a long way,” Aranda said.

On the morning of Friday, Dec. 18, the wrapped presents were delivered to the social workers, who then distributed the gifts to the parents of the 16 families, just in time for Christmas week.

Kolp said it is her hope that the impact of these donations will stick with the children of the local families through adulthood.

“Maybe they can help someone when they get to an age and a time when they can help people,” Kolp said. “They can remember how if felt when others reached out to them.”

When asked what these presents represent to these families, Wilson reflects on the phrase she always tells her own children: “In a world full of darkness, be the light.”

“We’re just regular people,” Wilson said. “We’re just a vessel and doing what we can.”

Tequila Wilson (center) dropped off the Christmas presents on Friday, Dec. 18 for distribution to the 16 families. (Photo by Louis Brems, UF Health Creative Services)

The heart failure team on Unit 66, led by the cardiology team, raised money to sponsor 16 families for the holidays. The families were identified by Catholic Charities and the Alachua County School Board as having experienced significant hardship this year. A few patients awaiting transplant helped with wrapping, including Christopher Wheeler (in the holiday suit) and Junior “Gene” Rollins (in the red sweater) and Eldred McLamb (in the red shirt).