Cheri's Story

Cheri Whitehead standing with her therapists.

A resident of Orange County, California, Cheri Whitehead, 69, began her career in aerospace computing before deciding she wanted to work in education. After spending 21 years as a high school special education and algebra teacher, which she loved, Cheri retired to spend more time with her family and friends, including a new granddaughter.

Cheri’s health challenges began in 2017 with a terrible case of bronchitis. About a year later, she had a kidney stone, which sent her to the hospital. Cheri underwent imaging and physicians found crystallization in the bottom of her lungs. She was referred to a physician at Cedars-Sinai who oversees the advanced lung disease program.

Cheri’s condition was well managed until early 2022, when she noticed she was getting worse. As her condition deteriorated, Cheri began to require supplemental oxygen and moved in with her son and daughter-in-law. Cheri’s physician confirmed she would need a lung transplant and she began to go through the process of testing and finding a match.  Cheri officially qualified and was added to the transplant list.  A short time thereafter, she received a call informing her that a perfect lung had been sourced for her. Cheri was thrilled and very thankful to the donor family and their loved one who was an organ donor. “I pledge to do my best to honor this gift,” she said.

Cheri was admitted to Cedars-Sinai the next day and proceeded to undergo three surgeries, including the lung transplant. She experienced complications, including bleeding and a collapsed lung, and spent nearly two weeks in the ICU before being moved to a lower level of care within the hospital.

Twenty-nine days after receiving her new lung, Cheri arrived at California Rehabilitation Institute at the recommendation of the head of the transplant team at Cedars-Sinai. “When I got to Cal Rehab, I was too weak to even lift up my cell phone,” Cheri stated. “Everything was difficult for me.”

Upon admission, Cheri’s goals were to be able to walk, stand and be independent in her personal care. She also wanted to be home in time to celebrate her granddaughter’s first birthday. Her physician-led team of nurses, physical therapists and occupational therapists devised a care plan to help Cheri reach her goals and return home.

“Occupational and physical therapy helped me tremendously,” Cheri said. “My therapists were always caring, knowledgeable, encouraging and patient.” Because of her weakened condition, Cheri’s therapists focused on helping her rebuild strength and mobility. They utilized several pieces of specialized rehabilitation equipment in therapy sessions, including the Sara Stedy, a manual device that helps a patient transfer safely from sitting to standing. Therapists also had Cheri use an EVA walker, which supports a patient's weight while exercising, making them ideal for helping post-op patients get up and walking. Once her strength and stamina began to improve, therapists challenged Cheri to use the SCIFIT Stepper, an adjustable total-body training device that mimics the motions used in daily functional activities like climbing stairs. 

Cheri knew her hard work in therapy was paying off when she was finally able to go from sitting to standing without assistance and could use a walker more easily. As her ability to walk increased, Cheri progressed more quickly. By the time she was ready to be discharged after nearly four weeks at California Rehabilitation Institute, Cheri shared, “I've made huge strides in reaching my goals. The strength in my arms, legs and back has increased greatly. I am able to get to the bathroom with some assistance and depending on the height of the chair, I am able to get up by myself.” 

“Each day, Cheri set a goal to take more steps than the day before,” her physical therapist said. “Week by week, she went from barely standing to walking with a front-wheeled walker. It was her self-determination to outperform herself each day, motivated by her family and young grandchild that contributed to her great success.” Cheri’s occupational therapist also credits her determination in helping her progress. “The thing I remember most about Cheri is her constant refrain of, ‘Let me try.’ No matter how weak she was feeling, no matter how exhausted she was – she was always willing to try.

Cheri is grateful for the support of her son and daughter-in-law, who participated in family training sessions to learn how best to assist her when she returned home. They also regularly came to visit during her stay to observe and participate in therapy sessions. “They have been tremendously supportive and accommodating to have me in their home,” she said.

Cheri also has high praise for her rehabilitation team. “On a scale from one to 10, every staff member at the hospital should be rated a 1,000! My experience was absolutely the best. The staff is beyond superb. I have always felt cared for and safe,” she continued. “Whoever was seeing me – nurses, doctors, therapists – I knew I was the center of their attention. My physical and occupational therapists have definitely had the most influence on my recovery.”

When asked what advice she has for others facing a recovery journey, Cheri says, “Listen and cooperate with all the staff. Be grateful for all the help they give you. Give your best effort, even when it seems too hard. It will help you beyond belief.

Cheri further reflected on her new perspective on life:  “I realize how much I took for granted prior to this ordeal and I will never do so again. It has been a privilege to have been accepted and treated here, and I am very thankful.”

As she had originally hoped, Cheri was able to be home in time for her granddaughter’s first birthday party. She plans to continue her recovery with home healthcare so that she can reach her goal of becoming “totally independent and back to my normal self.”