Friday, December 21, 2012

Wonderful Life

Anyone who knows me well – or has browsed my Facebook page or picked up a copy of my book or even sat next to me on a bus for five minutes – knows that when it comes to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I have a freakish attachment to this movie. I named my baby after the guardian-angel character, Clarence. My book’s title, Zuzu’s Petals, is a direct nod to one of the movie’s defining scenes. And since my 20s, I’ve watched this holiday classic one to four times each year.

"Help me, Clarence. Please. I want to live again."
Without fail, I cry unabashedly every time I get to a particular scene, you know the one: George Bailey leaning over the bridge, head bowed, hands clasped, tears streaming down his face as he implores Clarence to help him, to let him live again. Irrational as it may be, I find myself worrying that maybe this time George’s angel won’t come through. I blubber like a big old baby and wonder what if Clarence doesn’t answer his plea for help?

But you know what? He always does. That angel always comes through.

At some point in our lives, there’s a good chance that we’ll each feel like George Bailey, like things are hopeless, so much so that the only way out of our predicament would be with the help of angels. For some, our George Bailey Moment comes in the form of needing blood transfusions – for ourselves or for someone we love – and wondering if that blood will be there.

Last month, an old friend forwarded me a plea for help from another friend of hers. This man’s daughter, Katherine, was fighting for her life in the intensive care unit and was in need of massive amounts of a less common type of plasma. Apparently, she was depleting the hospital’s supply at a much faster rate than they could replenish it. The tone of the original e-mail was one of frantic urgency, the kind reserved for situations that are equal parts hopeless and hopeful. Situations that could really use an angel.

Having interacted with blood centers across the US for 12 years now, my initial message to Katherine’s father was one of hope: have faith in the vast network of non-profit blood centers to do what they do best: collect and manage blood, and, if necessary, transport it across the country to the people who need it, people like his daughter. I remained positive because, from personal experience, I know how absolutely essential optimism is in a situation like this.

And yet.

What if those who could donate the type of plasma Katherine required didn’t respond to this kind and desperate father’s plea for help? What if the blood centers weren’t able to come through for her? I kept checking Katherine’s CaringBridge and Facebook pages for updates, eager for news about a young woman I’ve never met. 

In the end, countless people responded to the plea for help, and Katherine was treated with more than 340 units of plasma. And then she was sent home.

In my worldview, angels are not just ethereal beings reserved solely for the afterlife. There are plenty of angels on earth, as well as potential angels waiting to awaken to their desire to serve. Sometimes, we’re the ones in need of an angel. And other times, we are called upon to be an angel for someone else.

I know I’m not alone in my gratitude for all the earthly angels who come through time and again for us blood recipients. Whether they’re blood donors or blood services professionals, they truly make this a wonderful life.

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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at Happy reading!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Grateful For Go-Go Juice and Mustard

When you meet a little girl like Caroline Carter, you can’t possibly imagine the words blood transfusion or chemotherapy or surgery being remotely used to describe the regular activities of her life. Instead you’d think: there must be some mistake because this kid is so alive, so bubbly!

I had the pleasure of being introduced to 6-year-old Caroline before a talk I gave years ago, and I personally asked her permission to share her photo and story with the audience that day. At first she seemed shy about the notion of being in the limelight, but then, grinning ear-to-ear, she consented. An hour or so later, as an image of her beaming in her princess tiara filled the large projection screen at the blood center recognition banquet, Caroline beamed as well, even stood on her chair so the entire audience could acknowledge her strength and beauty and, well, bubbliness.

I had learned the details of her medical challenges from her mother, Karen, a sharp and well-spoken business woman who was determined to give her little girl as much happiness, joy, and normalcy as she could for as long as possible. At 4½ years old, Caroline had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given a 30 percent chance of survival. When the chemo, radiation, surgeries, stem cell transplant, and experimental antibody treatments took their toll on Caroline’s body, blood transfusions became a regular part of her regimen as well. In true childlike form, Caroline renamed the blood components to suit her youthful perspective. Red blood cells were “go-go juice,” for their ability to give her considerably more energy after being transfused. Platelets were “mustard,” and I believe their color pretty much explains that nickname.

Many of us often refer to blood transfusions as the “gift of life,” but to Caroline, go-go juice and mustard offered the gift of play: the chance to ride her bike, kick a soccer ball, or climb the rock wall. Go-go juice and mustard allowed Caroline to be normal – as normal as a kid could be between hospitalizations and invasive medical treatments. And allowing her daughter to lead a normal life, Karen would later tell me, was one of her greatest goals, no matter the ultimate outcome of Caroline’s struggle with cancer.

For three and a half years, go-go juice and mustard helped a bubbly little girl forget, at times, that she was a patient, and allowed her to simply focus on being a kid. A kid who loved to play.

This Thanksgiving, Nov. 22, would’ve been Caroline’s 13th birthday. My own daughter, who is nearing the age of 13 herself, typically makes a “gratitude tree” each year for Thanksgiving, and then we each write down things we’re grateful for on its paper leaves. This year, I’m going to write “go-go juice and mustard” because, as a mom, I am grateful for the gift of play that these two blood components offered a beautiful and bubbly little girl who once touched my heart.

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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at Happy reading!

Friday, October 19, 2012

There, But For the Grace of God

Last month, I was scheduled to give a talk in Barcelona, followed by ten days of writing (read: playing) in Avignon and Paris. I was hoping to come across an appropriate story – someone interesting with a personal tie to the blood cause – for my monthly column in the America's Blood Centers newsletter while traveling internationally. Turns out, I didn’t have to wait very long. 

Despite my plan to sleep through the overnight flight to Spain, Brad, my seatmate, and I instead spent the better part of the flight in lively conversation about everything from business and travel to politics and religion (I know, I know – propriety was never my strong suit).

Ultimately, the conversation turned to blood, as it usually tends to do when you’re seated next to me on a plane. A long-time blood donor, Brad expanded his efforts in this area 12 years ago by registering as a bone marrow donor.

“A friend’s son needed a transplant, so I signed up immediately. I wasn’t a match for his child, but shortly after joining the registry I was told I was a near-perfect match for a 31-year-old man in Chicago.”

Brad underwent local anesthesia for the surgical removal of bone marrow through his pelvic bone. The marrow was then flown to Chicago where it saved the life of the young man Brad has never met, but whom he’s been told is doing well.

“I’m not going to lie, that procedure hurt,” Brad confessed, rubbing his hip as if the cellular memory of physical pain were still present. “And the recovery period was rough for me, especially when one of my kids got the flu and I had to be quarantined from him. It’s not easy being told you can’t even play with your own son.”

“So would you do it again?” I asked.

“I would and I did. Five years later, I was another perfect match, this time for a little boy with leukemia.”

“Even though you’d had such a tough time with the first donation?” I asked, probing to understand my new friend’s motivation.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Brad replied, “I figure, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’” 

Having already discussed spirituality with him, I knew that Brad’s reasoning wasn’t based on religious dogma or duty, but rather an authentic sense of one human being wanting to help another human being – even if to do so was a pain in the...hip.

The second donation was also done surgically, and although his recovery period was easier, ongoing soreness was still an issue. I told him about the newer, more common, and simpler approach to bone marrow donations called peripheral blood stem cells (or PBSCs), which is performed much the same way as an apheresis blood donation. He’d never heard of this approach, nor was he aware that the majority of stem cell donations are now collected this way, rather than through the bone marrow. 

Brad then told me he’d recently received a third call regarding a possible match for his bone marrow. “Wow!” he said. “You’ve got me all excited about this now!”

Actually, Brad, I’m the one who’s excited. You see, lately I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the crap going on in the world – whether it’s the shooting of a little girl in Pakistan who spoke up in favor of girls attending school, or the abduction and murder of a little girl who was walking to school less than 20 miles from my home – and I am saddened by the seeming lack of compassion that is exhibited daily. But you, Brad, serve as a reminder that there are good people out there, everywhere, everyday. I’m excited that people like you exist. Meeting you, Brad, was a reminder that if I pay attention, I don’t have to wait long to cross paths with a truly good soul – a blood donor, a marrow donor, an organ donor. You’re everywhere, Brad. And you make the world a much better place. 

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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at Happy reading!

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Years ago, after giving a talk to a group of blood safety laboratory workers, I was approached by one of the women in the audience. She had lingered in the back of the room until everyone else left to return to work. “You have no idea how perfect the timing of your visit is,” she said. “I really – really – needed a reminder of how important my small role with the blood supply is.” With tears in her eyes, she told me how burned out and tired she was, to the point of questioning her career choice. “I have a confession to make,” she continued. “I was going to quit my job today.” She told me that she now realized all she truly needed was to remember why she’d chosen this line of work in the first place; that, and maybe a vacation.

I have a confession of my own to make. It involves one of the first memories I have following the birth of my daughter. It was about two weeks into my post-partum nightmare in the intensive care unit, and I awoke to a man I didn’t recognize thumping his finger on my distended belly. That man was Bob Osorio, the head of the hospital’s liver transplant program, who – despite my lack of recognition – had been managing my medical care for about 10 days at that point.

When Dr. Osorio saw that I’d opened my eyes, he asked me if I knew what had happened to me. I was embarrassed because it felt like I ought to know the answer to his question, but I didn’t so I pretended not to hear him. Interpreting my silence as a no, he told me that I’d had a baby, that there had been complications, that I was very sick, and that I’d been given—and was still receiving—a considerable amount of blood. The minute I heard the word “blood,” my first thought was, “Blood transfusions! I’ll bet I have AIDS now!”

I immediately thought of that article I had read years ago about a boy – was his name Ryan? – who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and was then banned from school, his family taunted by people whose fear got the best of them. I remembered another article about him years later, his face gracing the cover of People magazine. He had died. “I’m screwed,” I thought.

Mind you, this happened in the year 2000 – not the mid-80s. Yet I – a relatively smart woman and former blood donor—responded to the news of my blood transfusions not with the gratitude of having my life saved, but with the fear of dying from AIDS. In hindsight, I realize that if I’d been more knowledgeable about all the hard work being done behind the scenes to ensure the safety of the blood supply, perhaps my reaction might have been more appropriate and less driven by my ignorance and fear. Knowing what I know today, I am – understandably – embarrassed by my initial reaction to receiving blood. And knowing what I know today, I am not only grateful for, but in awe of, the advancements in transfusion medicine that are continually being made.

To me, what happens between the time blood leaves a donor and is transfused in a patient is nothing short of a miracle – a technological and scientific miracle. We in the blood banking community are fond of saying “blood donors save lives.” But that’s just half of the story. The fact is, everyone who has a hand in getting that blood – in its safest form – to someone in need saves lives.

A message to that woman who almost left her position in the lab all those years ago: thank you for choosing to stay. Thank you for continuing to not only save lives, but to forever change them. Your work is important. You do make a difference.

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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at Happy reading!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Rest In Peace, Princess Gargi

If you look at Gargi Pahuja's Facebook page, you'll find a quote from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. 
Sharing a laugh with Gargi

One thing I discovered quickly after meeting Gargi a couple years ago is that she knew how to find the humor in the most dire of circumstances. This was, I suspect, the greatest lesson of living a lifetime with a chronic transfusion-dependent disease. And like Frankl, Gargi was a survivor--with a proven ability to laugh hard and often. 

After connecting through e-mail in 2010, I invited Gargi and her mom to join me at my upcoming book-launch party in San Francisco. Long after most of the party attendees had left, Gargi and I sat laughing and plotting ways to join our respective advocacy efforts. Afterward, my husband asked me who she was because he didn't recognize her but could clearly see that we were old friends. "Just met her," I replied. 

But that's the thing with Gargi. Once she met you, you became an instant "old friend." She didn't waste time slowly building up to a friendship. After all, after being diagnosed with thalassemia as a baby, Gargi wasn't expected to live to see her 12th birthday. The doctors told her parents, "Take her home, enjoy her and don't expect anything from her."

Gargi got the last laugh with her doctors though. Not only did she see her 12th birthday - and two dozen birthdays after that - she also excelled in life: several degrees, non-profit board seats, and some incredible work helping patients around the world. But in my view, Gargi's greatest accomplishment was her solid grasp of priorities. She knew, without hesitation, what was important to her--family, friends, the human connection.

There's another bit of telling detail on Gargi's Facebook page. Her self-description reads: I like to laugh so hard and loud that my insides hurt, twirl until I fall down from being dizzy, have meaningful conversations with 5-year-olds, mix my poisons, and generally do good deeds so that I can come back as a princess in my next life.
With Gargi and Her Family at the FABC Gala Benefit
Though I never witnessed Gargi twirling until she fell, I did witness some of her many good deeds: promoting blood safety for future transfusion-dependent patients, working with her family's charity to help thalassemia patients in India, securing sponsorships for a gala benefit I chaired last November, relocating to Virginia so she could help care for her newborn nephew. Every time I mentioned trying to create a paid position for her with the foundation I was heading up, her response was always the same: "Let's just focus on your needs right now. The rest will work itself out."

Last weekend, Gargi's time on earth came to an end. But I have no doubt that her impact on countless people - myself included - will continue. So let's raise a glass to Princess Gargi, a radiant soul who performed a lifetime of good deeds in a mere 37 years. 

Rest in peace, friend. 

Gargi Pahuja
1975 - 2012