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SNC Friends Rally Round as Alum Recovers From Lung Transplant

Moments after Lauren (Hartman) Arkens ’07 was born in 1984, her lungs expanded with their first breath.

They took their last breath this past Christmas Eve. 

“The nurse put a mask on me, I took a deep breath in, and fell asleep,” Lauren recalls.

When she awoke, her lungs, ravaged by a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis, had been replaced by healthy lungs from an organ donor.

“It was incredible,” Lauren recalls of her first breath with the new lungs. “I remember having the vent[ilator] come out – that was the best experience, being able to take a big, deep breath.”

Lauren and her husband, Tyler ’07, had already battled a major family health crisis. The couple met and fell in love during their time at St. Norbert College, where Tyler played football with Lauren’s brother. When their daughter Lily was born with a complex heart defect, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, they dedicated themselves to helping her heal. Lily needed a series of three open-heart surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “It was a lot of stress the first three years,” says Lauren. “I did whatever I had to do to take care of her and make sure she was going to survive.”

In the meantime Lauren’s cystic fibrosis, which she had been managing successfully since her diagnosis at birth, became increasingly problematic. By last summer, Lauren’s lungs were consistently functioning at less than 30 percent. She needed oxygen support 24 hours a day. Her doctors determined her best option was a double lung transplant.

Lauren was placed on the transplant list on Dec. 1, 2015. The much-anticipated call came sooner than they expected, on Dec. 23. Donor lungs were available, and they needed to pack for the hospital.

“I was very scared. Very worried,” recalls Lauren. “A whole bunch of anxiety, not knowing what the outcome was going to be. I worry about the future, about Tyler and Lily.”

The Arkens family learned they had a small window before the surgery the next day (Christmas Eve) because multiple transplants were being arranged with Lauren’s organ donor. They cobbled together a makeshift Christmas celebration that night, and 8-year-old Lily pulled some strings with her friends at the North Pole. “She wrote a letter to Santa to have him come on Christmas Eve morning,” explained Lauren. Santa obliged, so the couple got to watch their daughter open gifts before they left for the hospital. “My dad came over to get Lily. I said goodbye to her and hugged her and gave her all kinds of kisses,” Lauren recalls. “That was hard.”

The surgery went well, and more quickly than expected. So did Lauren’s difficult recovery, which many attributed to her determination.

“She had quiet tenacity,” says Tyler. “She had it in her head that she wasn’t going to be there long, and that she didn’t need the help of the vent. It was incredible to watch. I’ve been awed by the ways she owned the process of recovery.”

An army of supporters swarmed in to help during that difficult time, including many SNC alumni. Tyler stayed at the Wauwatosa, Wis., home of former SNC roommate Matt Olejniczak ’07 since it was close to Lauren’s hospital.

Family friend and fellow SNC alum Anne Higgins ’80 organized a meal brigade, arranged for household help, sent out recovery updates, and spearheaded fundraising efforts. Tyler’s employer, Amerilux International (led by Kurt Voss, founder of the Cassandra Voss Center), provided much-appreciated flexibility during the difficult time. “It’s so humbling to have so many people step up and want to help,” says Tyler.

SNC ties run deep in this family. Tyler’s siblings Ryan ’03 and Kylee Arkens ’01 attended St. Norbert. Lauren’s family includes a long list of SNC alumni: her brother Ryan Hartman ’04; uncles Don Noskowiak ’79, Keith Noskowiak ’83, Kevin Noskowiak ’85 and Jerry Noskowiak ’93; aunts Julie Janowicz Noskowiak ’85, Janice Noskowiak Falzon ’89 and Jane Forgianni Noskowiak ’94; and cousins Katie Noskowiak ’07, Alex Noskowiak ’09 and Kelsey Noskowiak ’14.

Lauren’s parents took care of Lily until the happy homecoming day arrived two weeks after the surgery, and mother and daughter were reunited. “Seeing them hug and just be together, that was the best,” says Tyler.

Lauren says looking back at Tyler’s social media posts from her recovery period helped her appreciate the depth of his commitment. “I learned that Tyler was very supportive and helpful and loving the whole time,” she says. “We were in this together.”

The couple is now committed to serving as advocates for cystic fibrosis, congenital heart defects and organ donation. Tyler designed a “Lungs N’ Roses” T-shirt to raise awareness about cystic fibrosis while raising funds to help cover their expenses.

“We’ve been so fortunate to have a positive result,” Tyler explains. “We need to use that for something greater in the future.”

Feb. 2, 2016