Her Journey from Kidney Donor to Road Warrior
For aspiring Empire State Ride road warrior, Laura Jean, this July will look much different than it did just a year ago. She’s set her sights on riding 500+ miles from Staten Island to Niagara Falls for the first time ever. Already, Laura’s envisioning the roar of the crowd at the finish line and the smiling faces waiting to greet her at the end of her weeklong journey.
“I’m an emotional person, so I can guarantee that I’ll probably be sobbing. It’ll be part of the accomplishment: seeing a lot of friends and family and knowing the difference that I’ve made.” She smiles and adds, “and then, I’ll probably feel pure exhaustion, too.”
Of course, that exhaustion will be a different kind of fatigue than what she felt last year.
An act of heroism
On July 11, 2022, Laura lay in the recovery room of her local hospital following a surgery to remove her kidney. Though she is the picture of health, she had committed to donating her kidney — to a perfect stranger.
Prior to the procedure, Laura never once met her recipient, Elena DePaolo. In fact, Laura had come to learn about Elena’s story through Facebook. She considered helping at first, but then Elena’s story disappeared, and Laura assumed she had found a match. Then, a few months later, the story resurfaced. Laura dug a little deeper and saw that she and Elena shared many things in common — like their hometown and several mutual friends, just to name a couple. What was serendipitous about all of this was that both women are adoptive mothers.
“I just felt really connected at that moment, and I thought that I had to give it a try. By the end of the month, I had reached out to start the process of donating my kidney,” Laura says.
To many, Laura’s act of heroism in the face of a call for help is one for the headlines. For the 40-year-old Niagara Falls native, however, it’s the story of how a stranger became a close friend.
Laura and Elena had a chance to meet in the hospital following the procedure, and now the two regularly get together for coffee or playdates for their kids.
“I met her the day after my transplant, and it was really emotional.” Elena says about their encounter. “When someone does something for you and you can never repay them, all you can think is, ‘She saved my life.’”
“There were lots of hugs and tears and a lot of emotion,” Laura says.
Elena recalls the first time Laura came to her house after the surgery to meet her three-year-old son. “He warmed right up to Laura the first time she came over. He was playing dinosaurs with her, and you could tell he knew she was a good person.”
Now, Laura’s planning to dedicate her Empire State Ride to end cancer to two people: Her mom, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, and her new friend Elena, whose battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia started in 2016.
Elena’s Cancer Journey, from Her Perspective
Elena’s journey has had many twists and turns. While trying to start a family, she learned she had a condition that caused the organs on the left side of her body to be underdeveloped. Her left kidney had never worked.
Then, she learned she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and she turned to Roswell Park. Her doctors immediately took action to combat the blood cancer. As part of her treatment, Elena received a stem cell transplant in October 2016. She was put on an anti-rejection medication so the transplant would take. It did, and the treatments proved effective for the cancer. Elena entered remission.
But her pre-existing condition, the cancer journey and her attempts to get pregnant took a toll on Elena’s body.
In 2017, Elena was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney disease, which progressed over several years into end-stage kidney disease. She started dialysis in March 2022 and held her breath in the hopes of finding a donor. But Elena was determined to find one. She put up flyers and went on every major news station that would have her to ask if anyone would be willing to donate. When she posted the story on Facebook, everyone in her community reshared the message.
When Elena finally did connect with a potential donor, the opportunity quickly fell through. So, by the time Elena learned she had another donor, she was skeptical.
“When they called me for the second time, I was afraid to be too excited. I didn’t tell anyone for a really long time,” Elena said.
When she met Laura after the surgery, however, her feelings had transformed. “When Laura walked in, I cried. I just felt like this complete stranger, who lived in the same town as me, helped me. It was like I met my angel.”
A Full-Circle Moment for Laura
For many, going through a major operation may warrant a little time off. For Laura, on the other hand, it was grounds to sign up for something big and challenging. Out of everything Laura is looking forward to this July during Empire State Ride, she hopes seeing Elena at the finish line will be a full-circle moment for both of them. She also hopes to inspire others to consider organ donation.
“I’m just hoping that people are able to see that you can go back to normal life after donating a kidney, and it’s a great gift to be able to give someone,” Laura said.
On Fundraising and the Road Ahead
Now, training and fundraising are in full effect for Laura. Though she originally worried about hitting the $3,500 fundraising minimum, it proved to be easier than anticipated. She’s already exceeded her original goal. She thanks her family, friends and the owner of a local small business for supporting her on her mission to make a difference.
Come July, she’ll be dedicating her ride to countless loved ones who’ve been affected by cancer, and she’ll wear their names on a custom jersey.
As for the Empire State Ride community right now? Laura says they’re already making her feel welcome.
“I’ve joined the Facebook group, so I can already gather the sense of community that this event brings. I’m really excited to get to meet some of the people that I’ve been interacting with on that site!”
Will you join Laura in her mission to give back?