Saturday, November 6, 2010
Some of my fondest childhood memories are from my times at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in Suburban Maryland. Adorable boyfriends, field hockey victories, late nights at Tastee Diner with food expertly prepped by Dudechick, toga parties at Jerry’s Sub Shop, Teen Club forays to Assateague and Kings Dominion. In summary, good times, good times. While my coaches may have sung my praises, and my parents were nearly always proud, certain teachers found me somewhere between distracted, unserious, and even incredibly frustrating. In particular, my English teacher Ms. Heard would be shocked to learn that I wrote a book, one that just got a wonderful review in B-CC’s fantastic newspaper, The Tattler, now celebrating its 84th year of excellence. The fact that I am considered “Illustrious” (see headline below) would simply boggle Ms. Heard’s mind.
BaronNation: A Series of Interviews with B-CC’s Illustrious Alumni: A Sit Down with Laurie Strongin, author of Saving Henry
By Marnie Klein
At BCC we have a tradition of producing excellent writers and thinkers. Included in that tradition is Laurie Strongin, BCC class of 1983, author of the bestseller Saving Henry. Unlike most authors, Strongin does not just possess a natural talent for the written word, but also a heart-wrenching true story.
Her son Henry spent his short life battling a rare and fatal disease. His fight with Fanconi anemia transformed Strongin’s world as she was thrust into a world of complex medical procedures and worrying if her child would even live long enough to attend kindergarten. Laurie and her husband were committed to saving Henry’s life.
In fact, they became the first parents in the world to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, to produce another child who might be able to provide stem cells to help Henry survive. Their decision to do so sparked medical and ethical controversy. The idea of planning a child and producing a donor divided many people. However, Strongin knew that PGD was the best chance of saving Henry’s life.
I got the opportunity to meet Ms. Strongin at a local Barnes and Noble. Dressed sharply and smiling, she fondly remembered her time at BCC. She ran track, led the field hockey team, and wrote for the Tattler.
Like many of us, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. After attending the University of Michigan, Strongin traveled to Colorado to pursue her love of cycling. It wasn’t until after Henry was born, however, that she started writing about her experience with his disease. “Writing can be a very good, therapeutic outlet”, she says. Strongin said that writing helped her process and organize what she was thinking. Her journal entries, combined later with emails she wrote to family and friends, eventually became Saving Henry.
During the interview, I asked Strongin to compare Saving Henry to My Sister’s Keeper, a fictional book by Jodi Picoult about a family that uses PGD to help save a daughter dying of cancer. Strongin explained that Jodi Picoult was actually inspired to write her bestselling novel based on a New York Times article detailing the struggle of the Strongin family and another family contemplating PGD. “I think it’s very powerful to read My Sister’s Keeper and then read Saving Henry, and compare the works,” Strongin said. However, she went on to caution, “I think it’s really important to understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I felt [that]…the mother [in My Sister’s Keeper] really didn’t seem very compassionate….and the children didn’t feel like they were loved for themselves.” Strongin worries that the characters and situation in My Sister’s Keeper might reduce the understanding of PGD to “creating a baby for its spare parts,” and seem “really scary, not lifesaving.”
“Henry was an incredibly strong, courageous, and really fun-loving kid”, Strongin remembers. Though she knew he had to receive medical attention to get better, she also believed in the importance of having fun in order to survive, and perhaps improve. In one instance she wrote about in the book, Henry was in the hospital when his doctor wished him a good weekend. Henry then questioned how his weekend could be “good”, because he would be stuck in the hospital during his friend’s birthday party. Exchanging looks, the doctor and Ms. Strongin allowed Henry to be discharged from the hospital for a few hours to attend the party. “It was all about getting better”, Strongin says of Henry’s life.
Unfortunately, despite Strongin’s countless efforts, Henry passed away at age seven. His short life not only impacted the lives of everyone who knew him, but resulted in medical discoveries to save other lives.
Inspired by Henry, Ms. Strongin and her family launched an organization, Hope for Henry. “[It] really acknowledges the importance of laughter and happiness, even while you’re fighting in the hospital to get better”, she explains. Today, Strongin and her many volunteers hold everything from superhero parties to carnivals to raise the spirits and pamper hospitalized children. Kids can get involved too, she says, by creating “birthday boxes” full of treats and toys for sick children. Strongin also suggests that kids hold neighborhood drives to collect DVDs and books to bring to a hospital. “It’s pretty isolating, being in the hospital, so a group will come in, and remind you that they know you’re there, and bring the outside world to you….it’s really comforting.”