In high school I was a very shy person. Getting into the prestigious Advanced Anatomy class, the only one of its kind in the country, had been a rough road for me, suffice it to say. I had to be interviewed by the current class, as well as pass the many rigorous tasks assigned by our teacher, the infamous “Bow”, in order to be selected as one of the thirty “Anatomies” – kids ages 17-18 who dissected human cadavers from 1:00-2:45pm each day for one extraordinary year.
The day I opened my acceptance letter, while not the best day of my life, came quite close. But this is a story of greater magnitude.
As an Anatomie, I was privileged enough to go on a field trip to Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital where they gave us the King’s tour – we saw… well, let’s just say, all the stuff that happens behind the scenes in a hospital. I won’t go into the gruesome stuff, but for someone who has had a lifelong passion for medicine, it was an experience I will never forget.
Afterwards we got a glimpse into the “human” side, as Bow would call it. The class, a jumbled assortment of teenagers from all backgrounds, waddled collectively into the tiny cardiac unit of the children’s wing. It was there that I met Lauren Hope Gentry. “Hope” was quite a key word here, for the abnormally small four-year-old on the heart transplant list was not projected to live to see Christmas that year. The day was December 3rd.
We as a class had raised something like $1,000 for the cardiac unit through a series of fundraisers, and one of my peers proudly presented little Lauren with a toy she had bought with a portion of the money. Lauren’s childish delight touched all of us. Then we moved on, down the long hallways, in and out of her life in a second. But my mind was whirring, concocting a long series of events which would lead me to breach all of my comfort zones; the first being, of course, public speaking.
I went home that night and pulled up the website for Fisher Price, digging for links to all the possible toys and accessories that had gone with the plaything of my youth: an elegant dollhouse with interacting buttons that lit up and made noise, dolls that spoke, horses that whinnied, tables that sang when you pressed a plate down. Obviously, things had become more technical since I was Lauren’s age. The dollhouse was downright lovely, with a lovely $600 price tag. I was undeterred.
In U.S. History the next day, I turned casually to the person sitting to my right. “May I have a dollar?,” I inquired, to which he handed me two. The day went as thus. I was surprised by the generosity of my peers; by the end of the day, I had almost $50, simply by asking for one dollar from each person I encountered. The next day I started doing rounds on the schoolyard, asking random students for a dollar, and then explaining my cause. They would fork over the contents of their entire wallets (that is, maybe $5 – remember, these are high school students!). The next day I asked permission from a teacher to speak in front of the class, and the words just flowed out. My heart was pumping with rich adrenaline. I wasn’t scared; I was elated, I shook.
By the fourth day the science department had figured out what I was doing, and I was rounding on all the classrooms during all the class periods, speaking for five to ten minutes at a time about a little blonde girl with blue eyes. At the end of the day, I emptied the glass pickle jar in Bow’s back room that held all the money I had collected over four days. I began the arduous task of counting, dollar-by-dollar.
I admit I burst out of the back room and exulted the sum to Bow mid-class: $1,200.
My then-boyfriend John had flown out to California from Arizona for his winter break. He and my best friend, Collin, were my faithful recruits. John, Collin, my mother, Bow, and I all met at Toys R Us and had the most rewarding, enjoyable shopping spree of our lives. With $600 in excess after obtaining the luxurious dollhouse, we flew through the store with our shopping carts, grabbing every cute, amusing, and downright enjoyable toy we found. These, I will say, all went straight to the playroom in Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital. But the dollhouse, in all its glory, was destined for Lauren.
John and I packed all the toys in his mother’s small car, then we clambered in among it all (a tight fit, particularly for my lanky boyfriend) and made the two hour drive to Loma Linda. I felt like Santa Clause.
We set up the dollhouse in a conference room inside the hospital, taking apart every gadget and gismo and putting it all back together again. I was struggling with the scissors and stickers, trying to make it all perfect: a child’s dream come true.
I was elated. What brought me down was the news that Lauren had not walked in eight days. She was not doing well. Not well at all. My hopes dissipated. The nurses, concerned that I had deflated so greatly, decided to wheel the toddler in with a wheelchair.
She arrived in worse condition than I had expected. Intravenous lines pricked her veins and coiled around the small child like a snake devouring its prey. She was grey, tiny, and looked so very fragile among all the medical equipment that squeaked and beeped behind her small chair. She didn’t look up until her mother beseeched her to see what Santa had brought her little girl.
This was the best day, the best moment of my life, for when those blue eyes met the pink and white adorned extravagant dollhouse, the child miraculously reached towards it; her limps struggled, but her muscles gained fruition in the fight, and she stood. And walked.
Nurses babbled excitedly in the background of my senses. Someone took a picture of John and me, standing there, flabbergasted. Manly John began to cry; I sobbed like a baby. Lauren didn’t notice us. She played with the figures, speaking her child-speak and giggling at the noises the characters in her new little world made.
I just breathed.
I had been working as an intern-shadow at Kaiser for over six years at this point. In this realm of time I’d witnessed both disasters and miracles, both failure and triumph, both the acquisition of life and the act of dissolving peacefully out of it, and inexorable faith in the innate goodness of human beings. To this day I am in awe of the compassion and generosity of my peers. It was they who truly saved Lauren Hope that day.
The little girl who had not been projected to live to see Christmas in fact survived under her conditions until March, when she received her new heart.
Today Lauren is the face of a new fundraising organization for children with cardiovascular disease. You can follow her inspirational story day-by-day through:
I will leave you with some more pictures, and I bid you good night.