Thursday, April 28, 2011

To Russia With Love

Peter was a Communist.  They all were: everyone who walked into my hospital room during my “crazy phase”—that ten-day period in the ICU during which encephalopathy caused me to scream about brains marching up my bed, yell for someone to help all the babies that were trapped in bags all over the floor, and accuse anyone wearing a white lab coat of being a Communist spy with designs of performing experiments on me (they were obviously—according to my warped view of reality—trying to “steal my sperm and eggs for evil purposes”).

But Peter?  He even had the accent.  And every time he spoke with my family members (who for whatever reason I actually remembered were family members), they always laughed.  He was a comedic Communist, that Peter.

Weeks after the encephalopathy dissipated and I moved to a step-down unit, Peter still stopped by my room during his coffee breaks.  He would spend a few minutes with me, or chat with my mother and share a laugh with her.  In time, I came to realize that those visits were as important to Peter as they were to my family and me.  How often had Peter come to bond with a patient in the ICU only to see his or her body sent to the morgue after days, weeks of heroic effort to save them?  Visiting me was, perhaps, Peter’s way of reminding himself that happy endings were possible in the ICU.

Months after my discharge from the hospital, I sent Peter a gift and thanked him for all he’d done, not just for my well-being, but for my family’s.  His ability to help them find humor during the darkest days of my illness was a skill not likely taught in his nursing program.  But Peter instinctively understood and nurtured the need for laughter, for finding whatever joy was possible for the loved ones of the critically ill. 

It would be years before I’d reconnect with Peter online.  He had since moved to Russia—ironically—to work as a nurse practitioner for the Foreign Service.  After the usual “how’ve you been” and “thank you again for all you did for me” that accompanies reuniting with those who helped save your life, we launched a nice friendship.  Seeing that I was open to the Mystery (capital M intended) of life, Peter shared with me a dream he’d had while I was ill and not expected to live.  In it, he saw me laughing with my husband, and that confused him.  “Lauren!” he said to me in the dream, “this can’t be! I mean, you died!”  I laughed at him and replied, “Oh Peter, that was such a long time ago!” That dream—he told me—had provided him with the hope he needed to go back into work for another 18-hour shift and give me his all. And eventually, his all worked.

Peter also told me that he’d wanted so badly to donate blood for me while I was ill, but that his having thalassemia prevented him from doing so.  But that doesn’t stop him from helping other blood recipients today. Historically, the blood services in Moscow only accepted blood donations from Russians, but Peter was able to persuade them otherwise.  64 donors—only 12 of whom were Russian—turned out for the first-ever blood drive at Peter’s workplace.  The local media was all over the story, and the Embassy Moscow Blood Drive is now an annual event.

Peter was one of more than 80 nurses who worked hard to save my life in the ICU.  And while burnout led him to seek a calmer arena within healthcare, today he continues to save lives—more than he even knows. Most of the people who’ve been touched by Peter’s blood drive efforts won’t ever know that he was the driving force behind the life-saving blood they received.  They won’t track him down to say “thanks for saving my life.” But I know.  So here’s to Peter in Russia. With love. 

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I Am

On January 25th, I woke up and knew it was going to be a crappy day. I asked my daughter to get herself ready for school and wake me when it was time for me to drive her there. I e-mailed my personal trainer and cancelled my first appointment to launch a workout routine. Even showering felt like too much effort.

I dragged myself through the day with a general sense of exhaustion, but I hesitated when I was about to cancel my evening plans to attend an advance screening of a new documentary with a friend. I had already cancelled attending her birthday party the week before, so I decided to pull myself together and fake my way through our date. And boy, am I glad I did.

“I Am” is the latest film project of director Tom Shadyac, whose credits include directing Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty, and Liar Liar. Being a big fan of the “stupid humor” genre of movies, I was curious about the more serious, thought-provoking side of Tom. After a cycling accident left him struggling with both physical and emotional recovery, Tom began to question the value of the many outer trappings of his Hollywood success: the homes, the private jets, all that pricey “stuff.” Was it really what made him happy? Or was he, as he suspected, part of the cancer that infected society?

Tom rid himself of most of his possessions – including his 17,000 sq. ft. Beverly Hills mansion – and moved into a simple neighborhood comprised mostly of trailer homes. Riding his bike to work each day, he launched his latest (and self-funded) project. Setting out with a small film crew, Tom asked an array of "significant thinkers" two questions: What’s wrong with the world? And what can be done to make things better?

Instead of receiving confirmation about the competitive “dog-eat-dog” nature of life, Tom discovered what was right with it: that we’re genetically predisposed to connect with one another, to feel and display empathy, to cooperate, to be our brother’s keeper. As one scientist he interviewed put it, we are “hard-wired to respond” with compassion when we see someone in need. Another said, “What we do at the individual level really does impact at the global level.”

I couldn’t help but think about blood and organ donors, most of whom have no personal ties to the people whose lives they’re saving. Just like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, the blood donor rolls up her sleeve and sends a profound ripple effect into the lives of the patient and his loved ones. Who’s to say what good blood and organ recipients will create in the world once given that second chance? As Tom concludes, love is a force. And being a blood or organ donor is one of the most profound displays of love possible.

Following the movie screening was a question-and-answer session with Tom, during which his irreverence, joy, empathy, and pure humanity poured forth. I didn’t want to put Tom on the spot with my question, so I waited until most of the auditorium had cleared out to approach him, though I already sensed the answer to my question. Not only are he and his movie promoter, Harold, regular blood donors, but Harold also donated a kidney to a complete stranger – an Ethiopian immigrant with whom he continues to stay in touch. Why am I not surprised?

I left the event feeling reconnected to people and reinvigorated about the work I do. January 25th – as it turned out – was anything but crappy.

Lauren Ward Larsen is the author of “Zuzu’s Petals: A True Story of Second Chances,” which shares her story of becoming a 200-pint blood recipient and the unexpected life that unfolded as a result. She is also the president and chief ambassador of the Foundation for America’s Blood Centers. She can be reached at, or via her website at watch the movie trailer for “I Am,” go to

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Heart of Brian Boyle

I admit it: I’m a memoir junkie. I love a good story. And I love a well-told story. And if I can get both in the same book, I’m in heaven. Recently, I got just that when I read Iron Heart: The True Story of How I Came Back from the Dead.

Iron Heart is the story of a kid – a nice kid – who’s a competitive swimmer in high school. One month after graduation, he is “T-boned” by a dump truck that runs a stop sign and slams into the driver’s side of his Chevy Camaro. At the hospital, he’s not expected to live. He’s lost 60 percent of his blood, and his pelvis and guts are pulverized. And his heart – did I mention his heart? When the doctors opened him up on the operating table, they found his heart on the other side of his chest. That one really got to me. I mean, his heart ... on the other side of his chest!

After a two-month drug-induced coma, this nice kid wakes up, but he is incapable of moving or speaking. So he lies still and listens, unable to respond when he hears words like “vegetable” and “nursing home” during discussions about his prognosis. But the kid gets the last laugh. Three years and a lot of recovery work later, he defies the odds by competing in the Kona Ironman Triathlon: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run.

As a seven-time marathoner, I found myself cheering Brian Boyle as he crossed the finish line of one of the most respected athletic races on earth. As a fellow “train wreck,” I found myself shaking my head in solidarity at much of what Brian experienced while in the ICU. As a parent, however, my response to his book was much more visceral. A mother should not have to see her child suffer such physical pain. A father should not have to beg his son not to give up on life. Upon finishing Iron Heart, I found myself as impressed with Joanne and Garth Boyle as I was with their incredible son.

Then I did what any self-respecting new Brian Boyle fan would do: I tracked him down through Facebook and invited him and his parents to dinner. When the Boyle family arrived at the offices of America’s Blood Centers earlier this week, I found his enthusiasm for helping other blood recipients even more impressive than Brian’s unlikely comeback. Over dinner, he and I brainstormed how we could work together to spread the word about volunteer blood donation – not just small-scale “practical” concepts, but big ideas. Maybe that’s the problem with those of us who’ve come back from the dead. We know that sometimes that which isn’t possible is possible, and that these things usually offer the greatest satisfaction and the most fun. And once you’ve nearly lost your life, fun becomes a much higher priority.

Having received about 50 pints of blood, Brian now gets it. And he wants to do whatever he can to help others get it. At 24 years old, he has the youth (and long hair) to relate to high school and college audiences. With his continued participation in triathlon competitions, he’s a shoo-in with athletic audiences. And having been on both the Today Show and Ellen, his reach has expanded. (Is having 5,000 Facebook Friends even legal?)

Brian Boyle is a young man – a nice young man – with a mission. And if your mission is to save lives through transfusion medicine, he can help. 

I don’t care where his heart was immediately following his horrific accident; it’s definitely in the right place today.

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Friday, April 15, 2011

Side By Side

Eleven years ago today, my husband had a breakdown. Not a few tears. Not an emotional outburst. I’m talking a full-on, never-seen-before, never-seen-since, heartbreakingly messy breakdown.

The day before, I had been discharged from a six-week hospital stay, five weeks of which had been spent in the intensive care unit. Jeff was with me nearly 24/7 during that time, taking fitful naps in the chair in my room or on the couch in the ICU family room. Hour after hour, day after day, my husband listened to good news followed by bad, discussed liver transplant options with a team of surgeons, conferred with the kidney specialist every time my numbers indicated the need for more dialysis, watched bag after bag after bag of red blood cells, platelets, and plasma being hung from my IV pole.

Week 3 in the ICU
For 43 days, my husband made decisions regarding my care, spoke for me when I was comatose, held me when I screamed in pain, calmed me when I hallucinated, and simply took it when I lashed out in anger and frustration. Remarkably, for 43 days he held it together. But on the 44th day – the day after I came home – he fell apart.

I was alone in the bathroom at the time, where Jeff had left me to brush my teeth. Though I could still barely stand, I craved independence and wanted to prove that I could handle this simple task. Leaning on my walker, I began brushing my teeth, but soon I was distracted by a wet sensation on my right foot. Looking down, I noticed a slow, steady stream of water leaking from under the vanity. I called to Jeff, who opened the door so quickly that it was obvious he’d been standing just outside, still unable to grasp that we were no longer in crisis mode.

Seeing the leak, Jeff breathed a sigh of relief and went to retrieve the small toolbox from under our kitchen sink. Returning, he got on hands and knees, and his upper body disappeared into the open vanity. Within thirty seconds, the swearing began. He’d broken the rusty old wing nut that needed tightening. The leak was still slow and steady, nothing our landlord wouldn’t fix immediately with one phone call. No big deal. And certainly nothing compared to what we’d both endured with my sudden catastrophic illness.

But at that moment, as I stood helplessly gripping my walker, I watched my husband lean back, wrap his arms around his shins, and drop his head to his knees. He said nothing, but his shoulders began to pump up and down, and he began to make loud, gut-wrenching sobs the likes of which I’d never heard come from him, from anyone. His wailing continued – five minutes, then 10, then 15 – a torrent of pent-up fear and angst and doubt and sorrow. I watched my husband surrender to the psychic burden he’d carried for more than six weeks, the final dismantling of the stoic armor that had helped him survive the near-loss of his mate.

13th Wedding Anniversary
The experience of a major illness is never the patient’s alone. It also belongs to the family, friends, even the hospital staff who come to care for patients emotionally as much as physically. But often it is shared most intimately with that person who vowed to stay through sickness and health, till death do us part. 

The inscription on my wedding band reads “Side By Side,” and it now holds greater meaning for me than I ever imagined in my younger, more na├»ve days. So this one’s for Jeff – and for anyone else who’s ever stood side by side with someone they love throughout a critical illness.

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The George Bailey Effect

While reading the paper one morning, Manuel, a thirty-something Mexican immigrant, learns that there’s a local blood shortage.  Having never donated blood before, Manuel decides to “help my fellow Americans.” Afterward, he describes the experience as “incredible,” and from that day forward, Manuel is a regular blood donor—every eight weeks.

A new mom goes into multiple organ failure and uncontrollable bleeding shortly after an emergency caesarian section is performed to save her baby’s life. Pints of blood are pumped into her body as fast as her veins can accept them.  One of those pints is Manuel’s. Several weeks later, Manuel’s next blood donation appointment comes up and—again—the new mom receives his blood. She leaves the hospital after six weeks with a new mission: help recruit more volunteer blood donors so that others can be given the same second chance at life she was given.

In 2004, the new mom returns to the same hospital that had treated her and walks into a room filled with news cameras and people. Seated in the first two rows are twenty-two of her actual blood donors from years earlier.  Among them is Manuel, who has a bouquet of flowers in his lap—a gift for the woman whose life he helped save. When he’s called to the podium to meet the recipient of his blood, he embraces her, then her husband, and then their daughter, now four years old.

Years pass and the recession hits, forcing many to foreclose on mortgages they can no longer afford. Among them is Manuel. The stress over losing his family’s home manifests itself as serious physical ailments, and he is hospitalized. His wife pleads with him to forget the home, that the health of their family is more important than any material possession, houses included. He remains despondent, but there is one
memory that pulls him through his darkest days: giving a hug to that little girl who has a mother—thanks to him. It takes months, but Manuel is able to overcome his health issues and move on with his life.

That Christmas, the new mom receives a card from Manuel announcing that he’ll soon be a grandfather. She sends baby gifts for him to pass along to his pregnant daughter, but when they arrive, Manuel sets them aside.  “I’m saving the gifts for the baby shower,” he writes to her.  “Before giving them to my daughter, I’d like to tell everyone how our two families are connected through blood donation.” The new mom reads this, and cries. Yes, she thinks, we are connected. Then she laughs as she pictures everyone at the baby shower all heading down to the local blood center together to give blood when the party ends.

Thinking back on this story, I am reminded of the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life—my all-time favorite movie—in which George Bailey begins to understand the depth of connection he had to so many people, and vice versa. “Strange, isn't it?” his guardian angel, Clarence, says to him. “Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

This is a lesson I know well—ever since receiving more than 200 pints of blood ten years ago during the birth of my daughter, Clare.  And I’ll forever be grateful that Manuel’s life touched mine.

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sure Beats a Transjugular Liver Biopsy

I have the dubious honor of having had five pieces of my liver removed through my neck.  While wide awake.

See, when your abdomen is so bloated with hemorrhaged blood and other biological gunk that it’s impossible to perform a liver biopsy directly through the belly, the docs take a detour. Through the neck.  Using the jugular vein as the pathway, they thread a tiny cutting device down to the liver. Then snip, snip, snip—five angel-hair-pasta-sized pieces of liver are pulled out of your body.  Through your neck. And to answer your question: yes, it hurts. Considerably.

But there’s a bright side to having had a transjugular liver biopsy. That jerk who cut you off on the freeway?  Suddenly, his rude actions seem less, well, jerky. The shirt the drycleaner ruined?  No big shakes. By comparison, there simply aren’t that many things that can top a transjugular liver biopsy in terms of ruining your day. So after my six-week stay in the intensive care unit back in 2000, “sure beats a transjugular liver biopsy” became my new philosophy when things didn’t go quite as planned. But all good philosophies must be put to the test.

Several years ago, after a couple of really great days speaking at various Community Blood Center events in Dayton, I found myself running through the airport to catch my flight. It was the last one of the day and I was headed to meet my husband and daughter for a family get-away.  We had even synched our respective flights to arrive at our destination within the same hour. Breathless, I made it to the airport ticket counter only to learn that they had given away my seat even though it was still half an hour before take-off. 

I argued, I pleaded, and then—I cried. Not that crazy thrashing about sort of crying made popular by the woman in the YouTube video (you know the one).  Just a few quiet tears of sadness and resignation that I discreetly wiped away. And then it happened. I heard that small still voice within—you know, the annoying one that insists on shoving its two-bit wisdom at you when you least want it.  In a whimsical voice, it said: Sure beats a transjugular liver biopsy!

At that point, I actually began laughing.  Right there at the ticket counter.  I’m certain the woman helping me thought I’d lost my marbles.  When she handed me my new boarding pass for a flight the next day, I thanked her profusely and walked to the hotel information kiosk to secure a room for the night. I started to think of how nice it would actually be to curl up in bed, order a pizza, and watch a movie. Just as I fully accepted my fate of another night away from family, my cell phone rang. 

It was one of my new friends from CBC calling to make sure I’d made my flight.  When I told her “no,” she apologized and we said good-bye.  But two minutes later she called back to ask if I knew that the city I was scheduled to meet my husband in was less than a four-hour drive away. No, I didn’t—and I love to drive!

Twenty minutes later, I was behind the wheel of a luxury sedan equipped with satellite radio, bottled water, and a bag of Doritos. With Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor as my road trip companions, I spent four glorious hours driving and singing all of my favorite ‘70s disco tunes at full volume. It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it sure did beat a transjugular liver biopsy.

Go ahead: steal my philosophy.  You know you want to.  And you’ll be glad you did.

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!