“Today was special. I’m so happy. Wow.”
With these seven words, sixteen-year-old Justin summed up his experience at the release party for his new heart healthy cookbook, Justin’s Hearty Recipes, in his online heart transplant journal. The special day marked the “end of an era” for Justin, being a little over a year since he received his new heart in April 2018. It was also a celebration of his wish experience—a journey of discovery and delicious food.
Despite suffering from chronic heart failure, Justin initially wasn’t even sure he needed a wish. But recovery from his heart transplant was more painful than he expected. “The hospital is a horrible place to live,” he says. “Time passes slowly, pain is ubiquitous, and hope is almost nonexistent.”
To pass the time, Justin watched a lot of television and was particularly loyal to the Food Channel. “I loved watching Chopped or Giada [De Laurentiis] making some sweet Italian meatballs,” he says. “That really kept me sane in the hospital.”
After 19 days in the hospital, Justin was released to Ronald McDonald House at Stanford for three more months of recovery. This is where he met his Make-A-Wish volunteers and came up with the idea to partner with a professional chef and create a cookbook filled with heart-healthy recipes.
For much of his life, Justin lacked an appetite because of his heart condition. He has also often had an NG tube in his stomach because he couldn’t eat enough during the day. Despite this, he has a love of food, which he credits partly to his tutor, Kathy. “If I finished my homework early, we would find recipes online and make them together,” Justin recalls. “Dishes like egg drop soup, fried rice, and spaghetti aglio e olio. My favorite recipe we made together was a spaghetti with lemon and capers.”
Following his heart transplant, Justin has gained a great deal of his appetite back and has been able to eat enough to get the NG tube removed.
Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area reached out to Chef Victoria Lacuesta, owner of East Bay Healthy Chef, who was honored to be a part of Justin’s wish.
“Justin’s story became very personal to me,” Lacuesta says. “When I was exposed to nutrition, I thought I can first help my loved ones with their eating habits and from there, I wanted to do more than just that. I wanted to spread the word that eating healthy food can be delicious.”
Justin and Chef Lacuesta met every other Saturday to cook and refine recipes. These sessions helped Justin greatly in his recovery process. “I couldn’t even get out of bed right after my procedure,” he recalls. “Going to get the ingredients from the cupboards to the stove, washing the dishes, stirring the stuff around—that may not seem like a lot of exercise. But at that time when I was very vulnerable, that was a lot to me. Cooking was really a beginning step for me to do more physical activity and to strengthen myself.”
The recipe development was also a learning experience for Justin and his mother, Yang Wei. “They had packages of those ready-mix powders for stir fry in their drawer,” Lacuesta recalls. “I had to stress that these contain a lot of sodium, MSG, and preservatives. I showed both Justin and Yang that we can flavor food in many different ways, and it will still come out tasty.”
Lacuesta also introduced Justin to ingredients that at first, he did not think he would like, including sesame oil and ginger. These are components in what would become Justin’s favorite recipe in the book, pancit, a Filipino stir-fried noodle dish. “It became my favorite recipe because…it’s noodles!” says Justin. “Fun fact: the first draft of the title was Justin’s Just Noodles and More! because it had so many noodle recipes.”
The cookbook launch was held at Ronald McDonald House, which was important to Justin. “That’s where hope is needed the most, and I think going there was a great idea,” he says. That day, Justin discovered he had a lot of support he never knew was there before. “So many people were invested in me,” he says. “News organizations were even there, and they were interested in my story, which was a new thing for me.”
One of the most memorable things for Justin was meeting the CEOs of Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area and Ronald McDonald House Charities Bay Area. “I thought that was pretty awesome because not many people could say ‘I made a speech in front of multiple CEOs!’”
In his blog, Justin describes the day as much more important than just a cookbook release.
“It’s a symbol of my heart transplant coming to an end,” he wrote. “I know that April 27, 2019 was technically the one-year mark, but today feels more like the end of an era. I think today’s special event is really a sign to ‘move on.’”
Justin hopes to publish his cookbook in the near future so that more people can use it. And he plans to continue with his blog and get the message out about the value of organ donation. Although initially he didn’t think he needed it, he’s also now a believer in Make-A-Wish and the power of a wish.
“Children are different than adults with illnesses because children haven’t had time to experience life before and are just starting out,” he says. “It’s very unfair and cruel for children to have these types of experiences and Make-A-Wish provides a break basically, a vacation away from the hospital. A way you can reset your mind and give yourself some hope in the future and your ability to do stuff. It provides for those who don’t have much.”