When David Wolnerman died, Central Iowans paid tribute to him as the Des Moines area's last known Holocaust survivor. For the last several years of his life, David had been telling his story of unimaginable physical and emotional pain — and, ultimately, forgiveness — to individuals, groups, and through storytellers' projects around the community. Thousands knew him as the man who never stopped praying, and never stopped believing he would survive.
To David's son, Michael, pictured above, David was a hero — and he was also simply "Dad." And as David's chronic illnesses took a turn and it began to look as though his storied journey might be nearing its end, Michael needed help: help honoring David as he died, and help for the family members who would be left behind.
Michael turned to WesleyLife at Home.
"When we came to the conclusion that my dad, who was widowed and lived alone, was going to need some help at home, we knew we had a number of choices," Michael says. "And even though we're Jewish and you're a Christian-based organization, we admired the faith focus. My dad was a man of intense faith and we knew that would resonate with him."
Caregiver compassion; "one resource"
Michael says although his dad had not been feeling well for some time, he rallied to be present for Michael's son's bar mitzvah in May. Once that was over, Michael said, David, 96, pictured below, began a sharper decline, and Michael referred to a packet of information WesleyLife had provided to him about other available services and next steps.
"We came to the conclusion that hospice care was likely the best choice, and the fact that Wesley offered it and we didn't need to switch to another provider was wonderful," Michael says.
"Dad could still be at home, and the team was so helpful in letting us know about other amenities that would be available to him, and to us as a family.
"The scalability of your care, the fact that you are 'one resource,' so to speak, is so valuable."
Dori Ferriss, a member of the WesleyLife Hospice clinical team, worked most closely with Michael. He recalls that one day, she suggested that she meet with the entire family — Michael, his brother, and their wives — so everyone would know exactly what to expect from the hospice process.
"I needed a Dori in my life at that exact time," Michael says. "She was great at giving us an idea of what to expect with his condition, and things to watch for. She also would ask me, 'How are you doing?'
"You wouldn't think something like that would have meant so much, but it meant the world. I was losing my dad. I was doing what I needed to do, but I didn't always feel like I was doing OK. Dori made me think about how I felt, and she made us as a family feel cared for as she and her team provided wonderful care to our dad."
"They would have treated anyone the same way"
Michael said as the team cared for David, they came to understand his story and his importance to the community, and they honored him with deference and respect.
"They knew who they were caring for in terms of his history and his value to the Jewish community, the survivor community, and our geographic community, but honestly, I think they would have treated anyone the same way," Michael recalls.
"Dori didn't give me her cell number and say 'Call me anytime' just because of who my dad was. She did that because I was the son of a dying father. She and her team made Dad comfortable and taught us how to make him comfortable, but more importantly, she made it clear at all times that she was also there for us."
David passed away in early September 2023, and Michael and his family remain in the midst of faith-based rituals that honor a year of "firsts" — the first holidays without David, marking the first birthday and Father's Day without him, and simply adjusting to life without a man who, while he had meant so much to so many, was, above all, "Dad."
"We chose you guys because of your reputation, and almost every day, I think of something Dori said and I'm reminded of the quality of care she and her team provided," Michael says. "He had a peaceful last few months and a peaceful death. You helped us give that to him."
WesleyLife Hospice offers services and care in virtually any environment. If you'd like to learn more about hospice care for you or a loved one, visit wesleylife.org/hospice or call (515) 978-2777.