As a senior in high school, I couldn’t wait to go to college and experience the world. Like my classmates, I was anxiously awaiting college admissions letters. I vividly remember the afternoon when I reached into the mailbox and opened the envelope congratulating me on my acceptance to New York University. I hadn’t spent much time in New York City, but I was excited to embark on this new adventure away from my home in suburban Boston.
The next weekend I was on my way to NYU with my mom to take a tour and meet the swim coach. My mom was just a few weeks out from her last breast cancer treatment, sporting short curly hair from chemotherapy. As we headed to the underground pool at NYU, I had no idea that this place would soon become my second home. We walked down to the pool deck, where I was met by a bubbly swim coach who introduced herself as Coach Lauren. She was a friendly, young, athletic woman who seemed to have boundless energy and a genuine passion for what she did. Almost instantaneously, I knew that I would love swimming for her and being a part of her team. What I didn’t know was just how much she would change my life.
During my freshman and sophomore years, I spent most of my time trying to navigate my way around New York City, making new friends and pushing myself in the pool. My roommate Kari and I spent time before and after practice sitting in Lauren’s office, chatting about anything and everything. I would talk to Lauren frequently about life, her path and how she got to where she was. She became not just my coach, but my mentor, my friend, my confidant.
A few weeks after our sophomore year championship meet, we received devastating news. Lauren’s sister told us that she had been experiencing severe upper back pains while vacationing in Tahoe and had to end her trip early. After making it back to New York, Lauren was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She was 32 years old and five months pregnant. The doctors needed to perform surgery immediately to remove as much of the cancer as possible, which in turn meant that they had to end her pregnancy. That first surgery was followed by months of chemotherapy, radiation, any and every pill and treatment that her body could handle, and more surgery.
The following two years (my junior and senior years), Lauren continued to coach us. She came to morning workouts, joined us on the treadmill, lead spin sessions and stood on the pool deck coaching and cheering us on, even when she felt like crap from her ongoing treatment. Lauren didn’t let cancer run her life; instead, she continued to do the things that she loved as best as she could.
I remember vividly the last workout that I did with her the summer after my senior year. One afternoon, a few teammates and I headed into the spin room with her. Music blaring. Lauren yelling. Sweat pouring down my face. Happiness. Happy to be alive, happy to be pushed to my physical limit by Lauren and happy to be able to workout. I couldn’t believe that this woman, who was constantly fighting for her life, was still kicking my butt in spin class.
In August, a few months later, I saw Lauren for the last time. I was passing through New York City with my mom, and we met her outside of her apartment to give her a gift before heading home to Boston. She opened the door, wearing a blue Duke shirt (from Coach Krzyzewski himself) and black yoga pants, with her thin blonde hair swept into a ponytail. We hugged, talked about my summer at the beach, her recent trip to Hawaii and my new job. She told us about the massage therapist she was seeing, and a new nutritionist that she was going to try out. Her attitude was positive and hopeful, as usual.
About a week after I saw her, Lauren’s health took a turn for the worse. Her doctors told her that treatment had stopped working, her abdomen was filled with tumors and there was nothing left that they could do. The only thing the doctors could do was make her comfortable and make sure she was surrounded by her loved ones – which is what Lauren wanted. She had been fighting for two and a half years and the cancer had not let up.
Two days later, I received the dreaded call. Lauren had passed away. Her sister had broken the news to the team earlier that day. It was one of the saddest days of my life – I lost my mentor, friend and coach. I spent the following weekend in New York City with my former teammates, sharing stories of Lauren and celebrating her inspiring and passionate life. The morning of her funeral, I ran my first half marathon in her honor. I knew she was proud and had helped me along that day.
Today, almost six years later, I work at Flatiron Health on the People Operations team, where I spend my time making Flatiron a great place to work by supporting Flatiron’s nearly 500 employees with a focus on benefits, systems, policies and processes. Flatiron is a place that I sought out because I knew that I wanted to work at a company that could make a difference in the fight against cancer. After interning at the American Cancer Society in college, seeing my mom fight and beat breast cancer, seeing Lauren battle colon cancer and losing her much too early, I was passionate about working at a place that was focused on finding better treatment options and accelerating cancer research. Whenever I have a hard or long day, I think of Lauren and how proud she would be of me and of Flatiron.