Ryan Whalen has spent the past six weeks on life support, waiting for the day his name is called for a heart transplant.
Visitors have been limited to family and a few close friends. Whalen’s mother, Lissa Brock, says her son feels like he’s on display with tubes running into his abdomen to purify his blood and pump his heart.
But get-well-soon cards fill the blank, white wall directly across from his bed at University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. Many have come from around the country, and most of the well wishers are strangers to Whalen, a 35-year-old Lawrenceburg man who developed congestive heart failure after a viral infection more than a year ago.
“He’s like a kid with a new toy when he gets a card,” Brock said in a phone interview.
“You work all your life in a small town and you’re just one of the everyday kids, but then something you think is a tragedy inspires so many people,” Whalen said by phone from the hospital. “… You’re actually for once in your life making a difference to other people.”
Brock, a former nurse at NorthPoint Lexington Healthcare Center, has spread the word about her son’s battle with heart failure through nightly status updates on Facebook.
Now, Whalen can post updates on his own Facebook account on a refurbished Dell laptop donated by Frankfort Regional Medical Center that he received Monday.
A group of four women, some of whom had not met in person, are spearheading efforts to raise money for Whalen and his family after they connected through Brock’s Facebook updates.
Paula Arnold, co-owner of Uptown Hair Shop on Ridgeview Drive, said the group – herself, Kathy Wintek, Donna Warmouth and Teena Oaken – formed as people pledged donations toward a new computer for Whalen.
Warmouth, who works at Talk of the Town Gift Shop in Lawrenceburg, said the café set out a donation jar for Whalen and raised $100 in about two hours on a recent Sunday.
“I didn’t want to handle the money,” Arnold said, explaining that an escrow account has been set up for Whalen’s family at Farmers Bank through attorney Charlie Jones.
“… I just know what it can mean to have a family member in a critical situation,” she added later, saying a previous experience with a hospitalized family member made her realize how quickly expenses can pile up.
Donations will go toward utilities, gas, food and other necessities for Whalen, a father of two who worked in construction, and his family as they keep him company in the intensive care unit. Brock and Whalen’s grandparents commute to the hospital from Lawrenceburg daily.
Jones and his office will write checks at the family’s request as needed, Arnold said.
The women in charge of fundraising met for the first time at Shoney’s on Lawrenceburg Road Tuesday, planning a strategy as Whalen waits for a new heart.
Already, a dinner and gospel benefit has been planned by South of Heaven Ministries for 5 p.m. Aug. 4 at North Frankfort Baptist Church. The group hopes to supplement that with a truck pull in Anderson County as well as a Barron Hawkins and the After Hours Band concert.
They also plan on creating an account in Whalen’s name on EverRibbon.com, a website dedicated to various causes that allows people to donate online.
While some in the group didn’t know each other, all have a personal connection with Brock, who quit her job to be by her son’s side while her husband, Jesse Brock, continues to work.
Wintek, Brock’s former co-worker at Frankfort Regional Medical Center, said Brock took care of her before her own heart surgery, and Oaken said she’s pursuing a nursing degree after Brock took care of her grandfather while working at Hospice for the Bluegrass about 12 years ago.
Warmouth and Arnold have been friends with Brock for years.
“I’ve been praying about what I can do to help her because she was there for me in a time of need,” said Oaken, who recently returned from a mission trip to Africa and raised funds for the overseas stay.
Wintek, who affectionately called Brock “Stinky” because of her perfume, said Brock helped take care of her prior to her own heart surgery. Wintek’s personal experience with heart problems helps her better understand what Whalen and his family are going through, she said.
“You don’t realize how sick somebody can get until you’re critically ill,” Wintek said.
Arnold said Brock never asked for help. Aside from the laptop, the group has already given Brock the $100 raised at Talk of the Town.
“I called her and I said, ‘Is this going to embarrass you?’” Warmouth said. “She told me, ‘Donna, I’m so grateful, but I never would have known how to ask for help.’”
Since he received his laptop from Frankfort Regional Medical Center, Whalen – whose apartment was twice burglarized and a handicap-accessible van stolen and scrapped for $200 since his hospitalization in June – has spoken with his wife, Sandi, and daughters, Ashli and Hali, on Facebook, watched DVDs and played games.
He’s also researched his condition and how a heart transplant will affect his day-to-day life.
Whalen is near the top of the transplant list, raising the family’s hope that he’ll get a new heart soon. Though he’s on life support and has endured two open-heart surgeries thus far, Whalen has been walking the intensive care unit periodically, he said.
“There’s days that I’m doing good and days that I’m up and down, you know?” he said. “ I don’t want people to think I’ve done leaps and bounds, but then again … I am walking with a life support machine that normally would not be walked with.”
Whalen has talked to some of the women involved in the fundraising on Facebook, but he is eager to meet his supporters in person.
“Everybody thinks they’ve got friends, but your true friends are the ones you never knew,” Whalen said. “They kind of show up in the dark, and they really pulled through.”
Brock also appreciates the help with groceries, utility bills and other day-to-day expenses as Whalen waits for a heart transplant.
“These people all work or own their own businesses, and they’ve taken time out of their days to help us, and that’s awesome, the way they’ve bound together,” Brock said.
To donate to the Ryan Whalen account, drop off or mail donations to the at any Farmers Bank branch with checks payable to Ryan Whalen Fund/McNamara & Jones Account. For more information on the North Frankfort Baptist Church gospel event, call Lisa Agee at 229-6605 or Donna Parker at 330-9259.