“We just like it here, huh?” Mike Komula asks his wife Melissa as they sit side-by-side on the couch in Transplant House’s community space. They have been speaking for almost an hour about their many stays at Transplant House (73 nights, including a seven week stay, spread over nearly four-and-a-half years). Melissa, holding his hand tightly in her lap, nods. “I just feel secure here,” she says, welling up. “I mean nobody understands like they do. Whether it’s the families, the other patients, or the staff. Because transplantation is not easy. It’s lifelong. It’s not ‘ok he had his transplant, we’re done.’ So much has happened to Mike body-wise since his transplant.”
On the 27th of October 2017, Mike received a lung transplant at the Cleveland Clinic and in early November Melissa arrived at Transplant House of Cleveland for the first time.
“Amazement,” Melissa says of her first glimpse of Transplant House. Melissa heard about Transplant House from a conversation between caregivers on the hospital floor. “I thought ‘It sounds awesome. Something tells me this could be the place for us.’”
Melissa called Transplant House and volunteer Anne Smith – whom she affectionately calls “a very sweet person” – picked up the phone. There was not an immediate opening; but there was an apartment available starting two days after Mike was scheduled to leave the hospital. For Mike and Melissa, this was “perfect timing.” Melissa had been preparing for an extended stay at a hotel. Her car was packed with crockpots and hot plates, dishes, and other daily necessities, as she prepared to make the drive to Cleveland from their hometown of Jamestown, New York. She was worrying about where she would do laundry, how she would prepare healthy and affordable meals, and what challenges she and Mike would face being on their own in a hotel room amid the turbulence of Mike’s post-transplant care.
For Melissa, those concerns evaporated with her arrival at Transplant House.
“I knew I was just two minutes from the hospital. And I knew it no matter what time of the night Elaine would answer my phone call and be right there if I needed help.”
And the apartment was a welcome contrast to the hotel room she had been planning for. Having easy access to laundry, a kitchen that includes all the necessities (appliances, pots and pans, dishes and silverware), cleaning supplies, and indoor and outdoor communal spaces where she could meet others on a similar journey was transformative.
“You know. It’s just, I mean, it’s exceptional,” Mike explains.
“That’s the word, it’s exceptional,” Melissa agrees. “I mean, it’s so thoughtful. I think that’s what comes to my mind. Whoever’s put this all together has done it with the human touch.”
The Komulas celebrated Christmas here (by making ornaments and helping to decorate the house), they’ve had their adult children stay with them, and Melissa has helped in the garden, by pulling weeds and finding other ways to pitch-in and “give back” to Transplant House. This is certainly not an expectation of guests but being involved in the day-to-day life of the House was a source of enjoyment and accomplishment for Melissa.
The overwhelming impression the Komulas give of their many visits is of feeling welcomed into a home that allows them to experience the day-to-day rhythms of their lives at home while also surrounding them with a community of other guests, staff, and volunteers who understand the journey they are on. All of which, Melissa and Mike agree, would not have been possible in a hotel.
“I look at this place as a place to share life together,” Mike says. “I mean we have neighbors on our street back home we’ve never talked to.”
But not at Transplant House, where Melissa loves to sit on the front porch and strike up conversations with other guests, where she and Mike share their experiences with fellow guests at other stages of their own transplant journeys, and where if guests want to talk about things other than transplant – their lives, their vacations, their families – or have a respite from the medical world, they can.
“I’d met a guest whose husband had a transplant at University Hospitals,” Melissa says. “And I mean, she and I didn’t know each other from Adam, but she invited me to the movies with her. She said, ‘Hello. Want to go to the movies tonight?’ I mean, it shows what you do here for people that are they’re comfortable enough to do that.”
In addition to spontaneous moments of friendship, they have also made life-long friends, including Lizz and Jerry Mishreki, a couple from California whose stay in Cleveland for Jerry’s liver transplant overlapped with one of the Komulas’ visits. Melissa, on her way to do laundry, saw Lizz exiting her apartment and the two became instant friends – “friendship at first sight,” Melissa says. Jerry and Mike became close as well, and soon the two couples were sharing meals, Melissa was taking Lizz with her on grocery trips (Lizz and Jerry didn’t have a car with them in Cleveland), and they met each other’s children. The connection they formed at Transplant House is a strong and a deep one.
“My father was a pastor, and he always blessed the food at suppertime. And the first time we had supper together with Lizz and Jerry,” Mike remembers, “Jerry says, ‘You don’t mind if I bless the food?’ And that’s just something very special.”
Mike recalls the community dinners with fondness, too.
“We bring people from the two houses into this one room, just for being together and talking together,” he recalls, “and just think if we as a world could do that. All of our differences, but transplant brought us together. And that wouldn’t have happened if we were in a motel or if we rented an apartment,” Mike pauses. “It’s so amazing.”
For Melissa and Mike, this is the defining element of their many stays at Transplant House: the feeling of connection, belonging, openness, and care.
“Just knowing someone can feel with you – connect with you,” Melissa explains, “It really does feel like home. I mean, I cried when we went home. I cried because this was our home for two months. And it was secure, safe.”
But, as both she and Mike stress, its more than feeling like home – it is home; and those who are under the same Transplant House roof are part of an extended family of patients, caregivers, staff members, and volunteers.
“You’re gonna be our family now,” Melissa explains to me. “It’s just how it is here. You know, maybe we’re corny, or maybe other people feel the same way, but you’re now part of my family because I’ll see you again during our next visit in three months.”
Reflecting on their time here over the previous four-and-a-half years, Mike simply states, “It actually renews your faith in mankind.”