Three months later, 9-year-old Lauren walked into fourth grade with just a cane to help her, and an aide trailing behind carrying her books. Because of the immunosuppressant drugs Lauren was taking to prevent her heart from being rejected — along with what Dr. Addonizio called a “cereal bowl’s worth” of medications, 16 in the morning, 16 at night — Lauren had to be extra careful about protecting herself from germs.
“At first I felt different from the other kids. I had to wear a mask,” she says.
Jeanne also made sure there was a bottle of hand sanitizer on every student’s desk, as Lauren was extremely susceptible to germs.
But soon enough, Lauren’s world returned to how she remembered it. She began participating in recess, seeing friends, even going to gym class without protest.
“The whole point of a heart transplant is not to put kids in a bubble, but to let them play sports, have pets, even climb mountains,” says Dr. Addonizio, who has childhood heart transplant patients who now run marathons, climb mountains, play competitive baseball, and are state champion gymnasts. There’s even one who lifts 350-pound weights.
“My doctors told me to do whatever felt comfortable, no restrictions,” says Lauren. “Because of my new heart, I was able to live like any 9-year-old.”
Months into her return to school, Lauren was asked to share her story on the local news, which led to a call from Donate Life America, an organ donation registry. They wanted to know if Lauren would talk about her transplant journey at a naturalization ceremony to encourage new citizens to become organ donors.
“I was only 10 and I was very scared, but I was also excited to talk about what I’d been through,” Lauren says.
It was at another such ceremony that Lauren met New York State Sen. David Carlucci.
“I didn’t even know what a senator was,” she recalls. Still, she introduced herself and told him that she wanted to help increase the number of organ donors in New York State, which lagged at the very bottom of the country in terms of registered donors.
To her surprise, Sen. Carlucci said he thought he could use her help with a new law, later inviting her to the state capital to tell her story to legislators. He hoped to change the wording of the organ donor question at DMVs throughout the state, starting with making it mandatory to answer.
Lauren and her mom made several trips to Albany, prepping in the car during the drive.
“She was a natural, and everything snowballed from there,” says Jeanne.