Gift of Hope donors help provide gift of life

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Gwendolyn Westlund views life as a special gift and that every day should be treasured.

Westlund, 34, speaks from experience. She is both a cancer survivor and heart transplant recipient. Facing death on several occasions, Westlund devotes her days giving back.

She spoke to about 100 visitors Saturday at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn about her ordeals and accomplishments. She was among several speakers at Advocate’s Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network event.

The celebration honored the legacy of donors who offered life through donation. The Gift of Life organizers also mentioned those people who are still waiting for organ transplants.

“I was fortunate in some ways,” said Westlund. “I was on the waiting list for just six months. It was crucial that I got a heart in that time. There are other patients who have to wait years. Some die before a donor can be found. That’s why it is so important to have donors.”

Westlund’s health issues date back to 2002 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 21 years of age. She was treated with radiation and the cancer went into remission a year after the initial diagnosis.

But five years later, Westlund was told that the radiation that cured her cancer also caused scarring around her heart.

“It was very stressful,” recalls Westlund, a Willowbrook resident. “I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I had some broken valves and I was treated with medication. I made sure that I followed all the rules.”

Westlund said with the assistance and advise of physicians she was able to keep her heart problems in check over the next five years. She was taking her medication and was diligently following a healthy diet.

But after five years, Westlund suffered another setback.

“I remember one day during a work day, suddenly I felt awful,” said Westlund. “Sometimes you just have a moment where you know this is not good. I was transported to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. My fingers were tingling and there was stiffness in my arms. The next thing I remember back in May 2013 was that I woke up eight days later in the hospital.”

Westlund had gone into end-stage heart failure. Her health had taken a turn for the worst. She had to undergo numerous surgeries and blood transfusions. She received both a left ventricular assist device and a temporary external right ventricular assist device.

After waking up after eight days, Westlund learned that she needed a new heart and had been placed on the transplant waiting list. Westlund said she never gave up and kept a positive attitude. She then received the call that October that a donor had been found for her.

The transplant surgery was successfully performed by a team of physicians at the Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center.

“I had to figure out how to eat and learn how to walk again,” said Westlund about her recovery. “This was a slow process. It was tough for my family to see me like this. But I was determined to get better. My family has given me great support.”

Westlund was married a year before her heart transplant. She and her husband, Bob, went on a trip months after her operation.

“My husband is tremendous,” said Westlund. “He is my caregiver. I think that caregivers don’t get the attention that they deserve.”

Orland Park resident Anita Tracy also spoke Saturday at Advocate Christ Medical Center on behalf of the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Network. Tracy, along with her daughter, Patsy, speak at seminars and programs about the importance of organ and tissue donors.

Anita has been a member of the Donor Family Advisory Council since 2002. Her son, John, died in April 2000 but he gave life to others as an organ and tissue donor. Since then, she has supported the Gift of Hope’s mission of helping others gain a better understanding of donation. She talks to various groups and shares her views on donation-related issues.

“By donating my time and ideas, maybe more people will become donors,” said Anita, who has lived in Orland Park for over 40 years and is a member of St. Michael’s Parish. “Being on the Donor Family Advisory Council has helped me grieve peacefully and has made me a stronger person so that I can share my story and connect with other donor family members to help them through the grieving process.”

Patsy joined the Council in 2002 after witnessing “the beautiful outcome” of organ, tissue and eye donation that occurred through her brother becoming a donor.

“I couldn’t say no when asked to share our insights with others as a donor family,” Patsy said. “I knew nothing about donation and the transplantation process, so I needed to learn more so I could reach out to other people who had been involved on both the donor and recipient side of donation.”

Patsy, an active Girl Scouts member when her brother died, applied the knowledge she gained about donation to earn her Gold Award — the highest award a Girl Scout can earn — by sharing her personal story to educate the public about the importance of donation.

Anita, who is bilingual, talks to various groups. She has been able to reach out to Spanish-speaking residents.

“We encourage everybody to become a donor,” added Anita. “We are going to continue to speak and get as many donors as possible. We don’t want anyone to go without an operation because there are not enough donors.”

Westlund now spends her time participating in cancer walks or through her group, Recycled Life Warriors, by mentoring other transplant patients and their families and organizing community events that promote organ, blood and tissue donations.

The Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center recently launched a cardio-oncology program that aims to prevent or minimize heart complications that may be caused by cancer treatments.

“I’m feeling good,” said Westlund. “I’m still not back at work. I’m somewhere in the middle. But I am grateful to be alive. I want to help others and that continues to drive me.”

Madigan fires back at Rauner while Munger plans to delay payments to legislators

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Gov. Rauner fired off a series of blistering attacks last week against House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd), stating that he was not serious about bringing an end to the budget impasse that is currently in its 10th month.

This week, Madigan fired right back, accusing the governor of trying to destroy the working class residents of the state and engineering this deadlock as far as three years ago.

Madigan on April 13 signed on as a co-sponsor of House Bill 6211 that was introduced by state Rep. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill. Manar’s bill is supposed to cost about $600 million. During the first year, $400 million will be provided to make sure the school districts don’t lose money. Manar’s bill would offer $200 million for the state to pay Chicago teacher pensions.

Rauner originally did not comment on the bill but has since said he opposes it, claiming that it will just increase the state’s debt. Madigan countered by saying that state has never gone this long without a budget. He added that other governors he has worked with have negotiated in good faith.

“The fact is the current budget crisis was completely avoidable,” Madigan said. “Gov Rauner has refused to put an end to the crisis.”

Madigan alludes to a dinner for Republicans in 2013 in which Rauner said even if the majority of Democrats are against them, they can’t stop the GOP. The House Speaker added that Rauner said the Democrats won’t be able to stop “me if I want to dramatically spend less. You need the legislature to spend more. If you want to spend less, they can’t stop me.”

The House Speaker has said that trying to compromise with Rauner has been difficult. Democrats want Rauner to drop his demands for reforms and concentrate on the budget. The governor said he is willing to support a tax increase but he needs to have Democrats agree to some of his demands. Democrats insist that Rauner wants everything is his turnaround agenda. The governor said that is not true.

“I can never, and will never support a tax hike without significant reforms,” said Rauner. “I just won’t to do it. Just cannot do it. It would be a huge error.”

Madigan responded that “state government has a vital role to play in working to provide needed services for those who need them the most.”

Rauner and Madigan have not commented on State Comptroller Leslie Munger’s announcement on Sunday about delaying payment to state legislators.

Munger said that compensation for Illinois' General Assembly members and Constitutional Officers - herself included - will be treated the same as all other government payments and delayed due to the state's $7.8 billion bill backlog.

The state comptroller said the state has to pay bills under a patchwork of court orders, consent decrees and statutory authorizations. As a result, the state is expected to dig $6.2 billion deeper in the hole this year, worsening its fiscal condition, exacerbating cash flow challenges and lengthening payment delays, she said.

With families, social service organizations, schools and businesses waiting months on end for promised payments from the state, Munger said it is appropriate for elected leaders to face delays as well.

"Our social service network is being dismantled, mass layoffs are occurring and small businesses across Illinois are awaiting payments for services they've already provided," Munger said. "As our cash crunch grows in the coming months, it is only appropriate that the unfair prioritization of payments to elected leaders ends. We are all in this together; we all will wait in line."

Salaries for the state's six Constitutional Officers and 177 General Assembly members total about $1.3 million a month, or $15.6 million annually, according to the state comptroller. The elected leaders are customarily paid on the last day of the month. Munger said that her office will still process the vouchers monthly, but the warrants will then wait in a queue with other payments before being released when cash is available.

State payments are currently delayed a minimum of two months, unless they are expedited due to severe hardship. That wait time is expected to grow in lower revenue months in the summer and fall.

"It is the right thing to do," Munger said. "And if this action helps bring all sides together to pass a balanced budget and end this unnecessary and devastating hardship to our state, that is an added benefit.

"Illinois needs a balanced budget. It is well past time that we get it done."

Local woodworkers want to pass along knowledge of their craft

  • Written by By Kelly White

A local organization is taking the hobby of woodworking to a whole new level.

The Hickory Hills Woodworking Club is made up of 75 active members who hold a passion for the art of woodworking. The club, which began in 1995, was originally named for its meeting place in Hickory Hills. The club switched locations to the Oak View Community Center, 4625 W. 110th St., Oak Lawn, seven years ago.

Along with stone, clay and animal parts, wood was one of the first materials worked on by early humans. Woodworking is the activity or skill of making items from wood, and includes cabinet and furniture making, wood carving, joinery, carpentry, and more.

“It’s a really nice and diversified club,” said Don Hunter, of Palos Heights. “We share ideas with one another, hold a show and tell of our latest projects at our monthly meetings, and gain advice on woodworking.”

Hunter has been a member of the club for 18 years. However, his passion for woodworking began 25 years ago when he started building furniture, cabinetry and more in his free time. He still enjoys making furniture and wooden toys for his three children and five grandchildren.

Guest speakers also feature the monthly meetings on the second Thursday of the month at 7 p.m., speaking on a variety of woodworking topics, including carpentry, wood finishes, products and tools.

Each meeting gathers an estimated 40 members at each session, according to Hunter, and the club is currently looking for new members.

“Not only new, but younger members,” Hunter said. “We want the club to be able to carry on after some of its original members are gone. We had a lot of ambition when the club first began, but as time goes on, it is difficult to keep up your energy level, and we want to keep the club new and exciting.”

The club is not only for men. Currently, there are three female members.

The club does not provide any woodworking training or tools. This can be a downfall for interested members, Hunter said.

“We all have our own woodworking tools and our own shops,” Hunter said. “A lot of younger people want hands-on training. However, that is not what our club is. We are a group with a common hobby, sharing ideas and projects with one another.”

A lack of training in today’s society is what results in young people lacking beneficial skills, according to the Hickory Hills Woodworking Club.

“There are no longer schools just for woodworking,” Hunter said. “Not everyone is made for college. There are people who would really benefit from these types of schools and training and turn it into a career.”

Anyone interested in joining the Hickory Hills Woodworking Club can attend a monthly meeting on the second Thursday of the month at the Oak View Community Center free of charge. Upon deciding to remain an active member, the new member must pay a $30 membership fee -- a fee which is only collected yearly.

“I really like the commodity of the club,” Hunter said. “Everyone gets along really well and takes the time to talk and really get to know each other.”

The club also holds shop tours of each other’s woodworking shops.

“It gives you a chance to show off your shop and projects,” Hunter said. “It also makes my wife happy because it gives me a reason to clean up my shop.”

Chicago Ridge debates awarding video gaming license to proposed wine shop

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

A long-vacant storefront on Ridgeland Avenue in Chicago Ridge will soon be home to a wine shop, after the Chicago Ridge Village Board hashed out the pros and cons of awarding the liquor and video gaming licenses requested for the business.

By a vote of 3-2, the trustees at the Tuesday meeting agreed to approve the licenses, clearing the way for the business, to be called Wine Time, to open at 10729 S. Ridgeland Ave. But after hearing the plans laid out by business operator Malin Cremeens during the committee meeting, Mayor Chuck Tokar and the trustees engaged in a spirited discussion of the issues involved. Until a separate vote was taken at the end of the night, it was not at all clear how the voting would go. Trustee Frances Coglianese was absent.

The site of the new business is the former Hollywood Video store. Cremeens said the space will now be completely redesigned over the next few months before the business is ready to open. She said the business will feature wines made in the Midwest, and beer and wine will be sold by the glass.

“If people like a wine they try, we want them to be able to buy a bottle of it to take home,” she said, explaining why she was also seeking a license to sell packaged liquors. But it was her request for a video gaming license that would allow five video gaming machines to go into the business that a few trustees raised the most questions about.

The same issues have scuttled plans to open video gaming parlors in the same spot over the past year, with some trustees raising concerns about the site being a block away from Our Lady of the Ridge School and Church, at 10801 S. Ridgeland.

“How long are we going to look at a vacant store that is a blight (on the community)?,” Tokar. “We need the economic development. If she doesn’t get permission to open here, she will just go to a neighboring community and they will get the revenue.”

Two other vacant businesses, a former music store and pizzeria, are located beside the site Wine Time will be fixing up, and the mayor said this might spur further development.

“If economic development happens there, it increases the chances of other businesses moving in beside it. We might have a good strip mall there again,” he said.

“My position remains the same,” said Trustee Bruce Quintos, asserting his opposition due to a lack of parking and the close proximity to the church and school.

Trustee Sally Durkin agreed, casting the second vote against the licenses, saying she had turned down other businesses for the same site for the same reasons.

However, Tokar pointed out that there is sufficient street parking available on Ridgeland in front of the store. The two anchors on the block, Jack & Pat’s grocery store at 10717 S. Ridgeland and Glenn Marker American Legion Post 1160, at 10739 S. Ridgeland, have their own parking lots.

Cremeens said she would agree not to open until 1 p.m. on Sundays, to avoid conflict with church services.

Trustee Jack Lind noted that video gaming is already available in the American Legion hall, which is actually closer to Our Lady of the Ridge.

“This is a good business,” said Lind. “When Hollywood Video was there, they carried X-rated videos,” he pointed out.

Lind and trustees William McFarland and Amanda Cardin voted to approve the licenses. Cardin acknowledged that she has always been a vocal opponent of increasing video gaming licenses in the village.

But Cardin brought it to the attention of the board that technically any existing business with a liquor license can receive a gaming license from the Illinois Gaming Commission.

“I’d rather she come to us first, but it really is out of our hands,” she said.

After Attorney Michael Stillman, who was filling in for Burt Odelson, agreed with her assessment, the board agreed to look into the larger issue at a later date.


Oak Lawn Board ends long-term commitment to Jack's Towing

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

The owner of a towing company that lost its long-term contract with the village of Oak Lawn last week, after getting a reprieve last month, was succinct in his reply when asked on Monday to comment on the situation.

“I ain’t going to comment on any of this stupidness. Have a good day,” said Ron Queenan, owner of Jack’s Towing, before abruptly hanging up.

Jack’s, which was owned by Queenan’s brother, Michael, until a few weeks ago, has been towing cars off Oak Lawn streets for close to 18 years. Its most recent contract, for 15 years, ended last October. Because the business had no outside contracts other than now it is expected to close.

Village Manager Larry Deetjen asked at the March 22 village board meeting for approval to award the next contract jointly to TechniCraft in Justice and Walsh Towing in Chicago Ridge. He pointed out that Jack’s was operating out of a village-owned site, and had not paid rent or utilities for the length of the 15-year contract. Since the contract ended, it has leased the property on the northeastern edge of the village on a month-to-month basis.

But trustees Alex Olejniczak (2nd) and Bob Streit (3rd) objected to taking the contract away from a local company that had no complaints against it. When Trustee Tim Desmond (1st) joined them, saying more information was needed, Mayor Sandra Bury broke the tie, casting her own no vote.

At that time, she said she voted no because there were questions left unanswered.

Jack’s employees went away happy that night, but when Desmond raised the issue again at the April 12 meeting, only Olejniczak and Streit voting against it, the company effectively lost its only contract, and likely the entire business.

However, Desmond and others said the decision should have been left to Deetjen and the Police Department, since the contract does not cost village taxpayers anything. It simply gives the company the right to tow vehicles whenever necessary in the village, and collect the fees.

Desmond also contended that allowing Jack’s to operate on village property without paying rent or utilities for so long could have cost the village as much as $1 million in revenue. But Olejniczak said the land was not worth much before Jack’s moved in and improved it.

Deetjen has said the decision not to offer Jack’s a new contract was just a business decision, and was not a reflection on company performance. He said the board had approved his plan to eventually sell the land that Jack’s is located on, and the company had been warned that a change may be coming.

Ed Forsythe, a longtime driver of Jack’s Towing, said the second vote on the contract had come as a surprise, and would mean the four or five people working for the company, all village residents, would be out of jobs.

Bury said Tuesday that she had nothing to add to the discussion after the second vote was made.

The exact timeframe for when the new companies will be signing a new contract and taking over towing duties was not available earlier this week.

Forsythe, who said after the second vote was taken that it was now just a matter of “waiting for the call” that the job was over. He suggested that having a company based in Justice in charge of towing cars in Oak Lawn could actually cost the village time and money because it will take longer for trucks to come and remove cars, causing police officers to remain on the scene longer than usual.