Lauren Shields: From patient to pre-med student
When Lauren Shields packs for Providence College next month, there aren’t many keepsakes she’ll be taking along.
The 18-year-old chalked it up to having spent so much time at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital nine years ago, when she received a life-saving heart transplant.
After fully recovering, Shields began advocating to encourage more people to sign up as organ donors and eventually sparked the creation of a law in her name that makes it easier to register.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Shields was enjoying her post-high school graduation freedom and stopped in to visit her mother’s office in downtown Nyack. Aside from being relieved that studying for final exams was over, Shields was looking forward to her last summer at home in Stony Point.
“I don’t really have many things that I hold onto at this point,” she said. “That was something that changed about me after being in the hospital. You don’t really care about those materialistic things anymore and you learn to appreciate health, family and the time you spend making memories.”
But, there is one dorm room essential for Shields – pictures.
Watch the video here.
Over the last month and a half, the teen has amassed dozens and dozens more photos, documenting milestones that family, friends and doctors were, at one point, uncertain she’d ever reach. Many of them are now destined for the walls of her dorm room.
Dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, the dark-haired petite teen seemed healthy and happy. Scrolling through her cell phone’s photo library, she kept remarking how surreal the last few weeks had been.
There are pictures of her commencement from Albertus Magnus High School, decorating her graduation cap with Providence College’s seal, prom dress shopping with her longtime best friend Gia Cricchio, senior prom at Old Tappan Manor and her brother Brandon’s commission ceremony as a U.S. Marine in their hometown.
Shields is now preparing for the next milestone: College, 200 miles away.
Smiling at her daughter, Jeanne Shields said dropping her baby girl off in August will be bittersweet.
“I’m just so extremely thankful, so proud of her and also so grateful,” she said.
“When she graduated, one of the things that kept going through my mind was that she’s alive and she’s still here,” Jeanne Shields said. “But, I felt that way at her fourth grade graduation and at every point she’s gotten to since then. I’m going to miss her a lot and as strong as I’ll feel the minute I drop her off, I’ll be sad. But, she’s just a car ride away.”Lauren Shields said she’s a little nervous about leaving home but that she “can’t wait to see new things and experience Rhode Island.”
“As much as I have loved living in Rockland – I grew up here and spent my life here – I’m excited to move on and do something else and live somewhere else for awhile.”
‘The clock was ticking’
At 8 years old, Shields went into heart failure after catching a virus that attacked her heart. After several other treatments failed, doctors determined the only option was a heart transplant. In early March 2009, Shields was put on cardiac and respiratory life support. Two weeks later, a donor was found and she received a new heart.
Recently, Dr. Warren Zuckerman, a cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian, recalled the day they learned Shields had a donor — a 4-year-old boy from Illinois.
“One of the nurse practitioners came into the procedure room I was in and we were just so excited for her,” he said.
But, he went on: “It was still a major surgery and still grueling and the clock was ticking. She didn’t have much time left if she didn’t receive a transplant.”
hields worked hard to recover and went from “being as sick as you can be” to “a little tornado” who took on Albany and Washington, D.C., with her lobbying efforts, he said.
“She’s made such a difference. She’s the only one of our patients that singlehandedly passed a law in her name,” he said. “She’s just so driven to help other people.”
Inside her dorm room
While some may find hospitals uncomfortable, Shields is at ease in them and wants her career to revolve around helping others feel the same about medical settings.
Inspired by those who cared for her at New York-Presbyterian, Shields vowed shortly after her transplant to one day become a cardiologist.
“I want to help other people who were in the same situation I was. It’s going to be really amazing one day to say to a patient ‘I know how you feel. I’ve been there and you’re going to get through this – look at me, I had a heart transplant,’” she said.
Shields hasn’t yet finalized a class schedule, but she’s looking forward to studying science and biology. She’s also mentally preparing for “the heavy math courses” required on a pre-med track, which she said can be “a little intimidating.”
In addition to school, she plans to continue her advocacy work.
“It is something that I’ll always make time for because my life was saved by an organ donor and I’ll always believe I have to pay it forward,” she said.
Dan Hogan, one of the ICU nurses who cared for her before, during and after the transplant, has no doubt that Shields will succeed in reaching her career goal.
“She’s extremely smart, very driven and passionate,” said Hogan, who first met Shields in 2009 and now counts himself as a friend of the family. “She’s probably saved more lives than I have.”
He also believes she’s already made an impact at hospitals. Meeting Shields so early on in his own career taught Hogan that “kids should be able to have a little control and make their own decisions.”
“A lot of times health care workers, teachers and even parents don’t think kids should have any control,” he said. “She is very particular, was educated on what was happening, and knew what she likes and didn’t like. She taught me to listen. Even if a patient is eight years old, let them have some control and let them help.”
As part of her post-transplant care, Shields must take two anti-rejection medications (Cellcept and Neoral), a blood pressure medication (Losartan), a blood thinner (Persantine) and a baby aspirin each day.
Recently, Dr. Warren Zuckerman, a cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian, reminded Shields how important it is that she stick to her daily regimen. Besides daily medication, Shields must undergo biopsies every three to four months.
“College is a very typical age when we start to see non-compliance and rejection,” Zuckerman, a cardiologist, said. “Kids start to think they’re invincible and begin missing medication.”
However, he’s confident there won’t be any issues with Shields, a patient he described as “one of our program’s shining stars.”
Physically, there’s no limitations on what she can do, with the exception of aggressive sports or activities, he said. As long as patients are vigilant at sticking to post-procedure care, Zuckerman said, “It’s possible to live a normal life span, possibly needing another transplant.”
One of the largest purchases Shields has to make is a wardrobe for her new life as a New Englander.
“For the last four years, I haven’t been back-to-school clothes shopping because I wore uniforms,” she said.
Lauren Shields, 18, a heart transplant recipient at age 9, photographed in Nyack on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Lauren’s Law, designed to boost New York’s organ donation registry, is named for the Stony Point. (Photo: John Meore/The Journal News)
Laughing, the Albertus Magnus graduate said, “I actually already miss my uniform. It was so easy. Whenever we had a dress-down day at school, picking out an outfit was so stressful.”
Although Shields’ older brother Brandon went to North Rockland High School, her mother Jeanne Shields said she felt more comfortable sending her daughter to a smaller, private school environment “because of her size.”
A cute sketch
At Project Graduation, an artist sketched a caricature of Shields and Cricchio, a sketch the two teens love. There’s “Dr. Shields,” a cardiologist holding a heart, and “Dr. Cricchio,” a surgical dermatologist carrying facial sketches.
Pals since fifth-grade homeroom at Willow Grove Elementary and then classmates at Albertus Magnus, Cricchio said, “It’s pretty cool we both want to go into the medical field.”
Cricchio will be giving her best friend a copy this fall, when the pair separate for college.
“It’s nerve wracking,” said Cricchio, an incoming freshman at the University of Delaware. “But I know she’ll do great things and it’s important for us to branch off and meet new people.”
Although a year younger than Shields, Cricchio seems almost like a protective big sister. She recalled a junior year trip abroad to Spain and reminding Shields to take her medicine each day.
“We became friends after she recovered, so I only knew her during her healthy times. But knowing her life story, I treasure my life and her life now. I don’t want anything to go wrong with her ever again.”
“It’s scary, it’ll be her first time without her mom, brother, grandma, me and our other friends and it’s a big change, but we know she’ll do great things,” she said.
The impact of Lauren’s Law
Before Lauren’s Law was put into effect in 2012, those applying for a New York state driver’s license or non-driver ID cards could bypass the question regarding organ donation. Applicants must now answer “yes” or “skip this question.”
Supporters of the measure said the requirement helps ensure people don’t miss the section on the application. It also prompts people to consider the question, which, Shields said, might not be something they’ve thought about before.
According to LiveOnNY, since 2012 there has been a 50 percent increase in registered organ donors at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
“We are confident that Lauren’s Law is one of the driving forces behind the growth; however, there are other factors that have contributed to growth, such as lowering the age to register to 16 and adding new ways to register,” LiveOnNY spokesperson Ali McSherry said.
But New York still has one of the largest waits in the nation for organs, with nearly 9,500 people on the list. The Empire State also has one of the lowest donor registration rates in the country, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
This article was originally published here: