When Rebecca Wooters speaks at luncheons and talks to media on behalf of the American Lung Association, she isn’t reciting a canned spiel. “To save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease” is the ALA’s mission statement – and Rebecca’s lifework. Lung disease has played a recurring role in her family, making her involvement with the ALA as president of the North Texas Leadership Board more than a philanthropic undertaking. For Rebecca, it’s personal.
Her passion for the cause stems from an experience nearly 10 years ago that would leave any parent reeling with fear. She tucked in her toddler Nicolaas before heading off to bed one night. “His breathing doesn’t sound right,” she thought. There was a nagging feeling that something was amiss. When Rebecca woke in the middle of the night and went in to check on her son, her suspicions were confirmed. Something was very wrong.
Nicolaas had suffered a near-fatal asthma attack, leaving him blue and barely clinging to life. Rebecca and her husband Scott sprung into action. The 2-year-old was rushed to Children’s Medical Center Dallas, where he spent a week undergoing tests and treatments. Ultimately, doctors found that Nicolaas suffered from severe asthma and allergies. Looking back, Rebecca says there had been signs, but she didn’t recognize the symptoms for what they were. “The scariest thing for me was that I didn’t know how to prevent it from happening,” she says. “It became a whole process of, ‘How am I ever going to sleep again? How am I going to protect my child? What am I going to do?’”
Rebecca spent the next nine months consumed with worry and feelings of helplessness. Night after night of fitful sleep left her exhausted and struggling to balance her responsibilities as a mother, wife and professional. As Nicolaas underwent a number of surgeries for his sinuses, the Wooters searched for a team of physicians they felt they could trust. Rebecca says there was a turning point when she and Scott took control of the situation and stopped letting the situation control them. “It became a lesson for parenting in general,” she says. “You can’t control everything, but you can work as hard as you can to be proactive when it comes to supporting your kids, getting the right health care for them and making the right choices for them.”
As Nicolaas’ health improved, Rebecca sought her own healing from the emotional trauma of nearly losing a child. While connecting with other parents who shared similar experiences, Rebecca reached out to the ALA and began her volunteer tenure. Today, Nicolaas is a thriving 11-year-old and a big brother to 9-year-old Faith and 5-year-old Georgia. His asthma and allergies are under control, but Rebecca’s dedication to the ALA hasn’t waned a bit.
She was touched once more by lung disease in 2007 when her mother, a lifelong nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer and in 2009 when her father was diagnosed with interstitial pulmonary fibrosis – both potentially terminal diseases. “There is the possibility my parents were exposed to something,” she says. “It could be a strange and awful coincidence. Unfortunately, lungs have been severely impacted in my family. I started at the Lung Association on one path, but it has grown into many different paths. I’m there for a lot of very personal reasons.”
Rebecca’s mother recently reached her fifth year in remission – a major milestone. She says her father is defying the odds by continuing to live with a terminal diagnosis. For many years, a trip to Australia sat at the top of his “bucket list.” Shortly after his diagnosis, Rebecca and her younger brother took their father to Australia to fulfill his lifelong dream. They climbed the Sydney Bridge and shared a moment that Rebecca describes as one of the proudest and most poignant moments of her life. She recalls watching her father stand at the top of the bridge with his fists raised high in triumph. “I remember thinking that it was a moment we’d never get back, but it was incredible and something that I’m so glad we took the time to do,” she says.
Rebecca received the President’s Community Leadership award in 2009-2012 for her work in the nonprofit sector. But she’s left her mark on the corporate world as well. Rebecca is the head of Customer Communications for Citi Cards and was named one of McKinney’s top 25 women in business in 2011. She’s proud of the progress she’s made in her career but is at a point where what motivates her most is being a positive role model for her children. Her work as an executive is demanding and requires that she travel to New York City one week out of each month. She admits it can be tough to leave her children so frequently, but she’s been able to find balance relying on the support system around her.
Balance is essential to Rebecca. She likes to think of her life as a wheel: Each side of the wheel represents a different aspect such as career, finances, family, spirituality and health. She likes to have a goal for each part of the wheel and stay in constant pursuit of them. To round out the health portion of her wheel, Rebecca starts her day at 5 a.m. with a run. She’s completed 10 half-marathons and one full marathon over the years. For Rebecca, it’s not about finishing the race but doing something that makes her feel good and keeps her healthy and sane. “I’m not always perfectly rounded,” she says. “But I do the best that I can.”
Rebecca’s best is impressive, to say the least. Whether she’s crossing a finish line, chairing a luncheon or carpooling to karate, she tries to be the kind of leader who inspires others. This, she says, is what motivates her to tackle her many responsibilities day after day. “I think that’s the thing that fulfills me,” she says. “When I see myself making a difference in other people or I see things coming back to me that I’ve taught or I’ve said or I’ve provided – sometimes without even realizing it – it’s very fulfilling.”
For more information on the American Lung Association visit lung.org.
Published August 2013