It’s a Wednesday night at Nora’s Home, and the scene looks like any typical household. A few people are in the kitchen cooking dinner. Others are seated in the sunny dining room, chatting about their days. So what sets this house apart from all the other large, beautiful homes in the Houston area? Each person in the room has been touched by organ transplantation. Either they or one of their loved ones has been or will soon be a transplant recipient.
Nora’s Home is named in memory of the daughter of Osama Gaber, M.D., director of transplantation at the Houston Methodist Transplant Center, and Lillian Gaber, M.D., a transplant pathologist at Houston Methodist. Following the car accident that took her life, Nora Gaber’s organs helped to save several critically ill children. Those gifts inspired the Nora’s Gift Foundation and the creation of a haven for transplant patients who travel to Houston. Nora’s Home recently became the 56th member institution of the Texas Medical Center.
The home gives patients from all over the country and all different economic backgrounds a safe and inviting place to stay. For many patients, some of whom must stay in the Texas Medical Center area for months at a time, hotel costs can be debilitating. Nora’s Home, however, turns no one away, regardless of their ability to pay. Fees range from $75 all the way down to nothing and are based on income level.
More like a cozy house than a hotel, Nora’s Home was built with the fragile health of transplant patients in mind.
“We’re an immunosuppressed-friendly environment, so we have no rug, no curtains,” said Kayla Lehmann, executive director of Nora’s Home. “We have round-the-clock help and are open 24/7.”
In addition to the physical comforts the home offers, patients also find comfort in speaking with other transplant patients at all different steps of the process. Some residents are waiting for transplants, some have just recently received their transplants, and others are years out, visiting Houston for a regular check-up.
Lehmann recalled one woman who was recently called back to the hospital after her heart transplant because of some concerning blood work. Seeing her upset and scared, other patients who had been in her shoes offered encouragement.
“I stopped her before she left and said, ‘How many in this room had to go back right after your transplant?’ They all said, ‘Oh, no big deal, this happens all the time.’ They all came and gave her a hug,” said Lehmann. “This is more than a place to lay your head. Everyone here is experiencing more or less the same thing, and everyone here turns into family.”
Indeed, though residents may be strangers at first, they quickly develop a sense of kinship thanks to the life-changing experiences they are all going through, as well as the friendly, familial environment Lehmann and the rest of the Nora’s Home staff work to foster.
A central part of the Nora’s Home environment is the weekly Family Fun Night held every Wednesday. Volunteers make a home-cooked meal and everyone sits down to eat together in the dining room. In recent months, Family Fun Night has also included a special art project for patients.
Claire McCarthy, a volunteer and student intern, designed the project. She was inspired after seeing how a few hours of painting and drawing inspired a little boy named Wally who was waiting on a heart transplant, as well as his mother.
“Seeing his mom also enjoy making artwork again, it got me thinking that I should come up with an idea complex enough for adults to not think it’s just a kids’ art craft project, but not too difficult for a child to participate,” said McCarthy.
She decided to return to Nora’s Home with a bunch of ceramic tiles for residents to decorate and hang on the wall. Wally was the first to paint a tile after his successful transplant surgery. Now, less than a year later, a large portion of one of the hallways at Nora’s Home is covered in colorful tiles.
“People are a little self-conscious at first, they always say they can’t draw or paint,” said McCarthy. “But I point to the wall and say, ‘Look at these tiles. Half of them said they couldn’t draw or paint, but all of the tiles are beautiful and they look fantastic together.’”
Most of the patients use the tiles to tell the story of their transplant journey. Looking at the wall, names and dates jump out—usually the date of transplant surgery. There are also many organ-related symbols on the tiles: lungs drawn like wings, and trees and other new life growing from organs.
One new resident, Jim Boysen, recently decorated tiles at a Family Fun Night. Boysen is the recipient of kidney and pancreas transplants, as well as the first ever partial skull and scalp transplant. As news outlets across the globe have featured his story, Nora’s Home has provided him with a quiet place to rest.
“It’s really nice—it’s peaceful and good for recovery,” he said. “I’m only a month out of a 15-hour surgery, so I’m feeling pretty good.”
Boysen’s tile featured a drawing of the Texas Medical Center, as well as the dates and locations of his first transplants, in Iowa in 1992, and his most recent surgeries here in the medical center.
Another resident, Michelle Rainey, decorated tiles with her daughter’s footprints and her family’s handprints. Her toddler daughter, Aubrey, is waiting for a liver transplant. She and her family have been staying at Nora’s Home for three months.
“I wanted to use her handprints so when we do come back to Nora’s Home she will be able to see how much she’s grown from now until whenever that time may be,” said Rainey. “To make the butterfly I used her footprints and painted it green and blue—those are the Donate Life colors.”
Lehmann, a kidney transplant recipient herself, knows firsthand how cathartic it can be to have a creative outlet to share such a profound story.
“Many times it’s hard to verbalize the gift of life or even organ failure. Often times you know you’re living because someone died,” she said. “But art is very healing. You can put in a painting what you can’t put in words.”
Nora’s Home is now introducing the tile project to the wider medical center, offering transplant patients throughout TMC hospitals the opportunity to decorate their own tiles.
“The idea is that they can make a tile while they’re waiting for blood work or to talk to the doctor,” said McCarthy. “If they don’t finish it, they can finish it here—everyone is welcome to Family Fun Night even if they’re not residents. Or they can come by and visit once it’s on the wall.”
Nora’s Home will soon be expanding, and Lehmann said they hope to feature many more tiles in the future.
“Our goal is to cover the whole wall,” she said, “and when we expand, the architect is planning a wall specifically for the tile wall.”
Though McCarthy will be heading off to college in the fall, the project she started will continue to provide a release for transplant patients and their families and caretakers, and to brighten the walls of Nora’s Home.
“It doesn’t matter what each individual tile looks like, together they form something beautiful,” said McCarthy. “It’s unity and diversity. The unity is that they are all the same shape and size, but the diversity is that all these people are very different and have different stories. But they all have some connection to transplantation.”
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