Model and TSS activist Lauren Wasser on reclaiming the game
The adage "my body is my temple" has become synonymous with health and well-being, yet few industries are predicated on the phrase more than sports and modeling. Both career paths require complete excellence of form and a schedule that would exhaust most. For Lauren Wasser, 28, straddling the fashion world and the basketball court was always a way of life.
"Both my mom and dad were models," she said in a phone interview. "My mom [Pamela Cook] was one of the 'it' girls in the '80s and '90s with Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford and all those models. My mother and I literally traveled everywhere together. We were like two peas in a pod. I was in Italian Vogue when I was just 3 months old, being shot by [famed photographer] Patrick Demarchelier. And then we did a bunch of Gap ads together. I definitely grew up into that way of life."
And while modeling was something that came naturally to Wasser, she said basketball was always her true passion.
"First and foremost, I loved basketball," she said. "My dad introduced me to basketball when I was a baby. But he wasn't [really] in my life at all. I was raised by a single mom. So basketball became my escape and safe place. Whenever I stepped on the court, it felt like I could leave everything there. It was my release."
Wasser hoped to turn her passion into a career, and playing for the WNBA was on her short list of goals. The 2000 movie "Love & Basketball" quickly became her favorite film, and continues to be today. She wanted to mimic the life of protagonist Monica Wright as best she could by going to a D-I school. However, she gave up a full scholarship, deferred her dream a bit and opted to nurture her then-budding modeling career.
She thought she'd return to the game, eventually.
Then things changed. In October 2012, she started having flu-like symptoms.
"I had been using the same [feminine hygiene] product for 11 years, and my period is very heavy, so I was using the super plus tampons," Wasser said. "I ran out to the drugstore that morning and bought a box from the same brand. I changed my tampon, then lied down in bed and realized I was feeling really terrible. I texted my friends because it was fall and the flu was going around. So many of them had been sick. I let them know that I wouldn't be able to make it out to a friend's party that night."
But as the day went on and Wasser changed her tampon again, her condition began to worsen. However, she fought through it.
She picked herself up and actually made it to the bar, and as soon as she walked in, her friends remarked that she looked incredibly ill. At that moment, it hit her that the situation might be serious.
"I drove myself back to my apartment [that night, after leaving the party] and took off all of my clothes when I got there," she said. "I felt like my body was burning from the inside. I hopped in my bed and was woken up [in the middle of the night] by my cocker spaniel jumping on my chest and the knock of police on my door. My mother and I are really close, and she called in a welfare check on me because she hadn't heard from me in a while. When I let the officer in and looked around, I realized just how much time had passed, because I wasn't able to take my dog out and she had ended up relieving herself in my apartment."
Wasser didn't realize it at the time, but her fever had spiked to 107 degrees. Her mother suggested calling an ambulance, but she just wanted to rest and stated that they would talk again the next morning.
But that call never happened. So Wasser's mother, who had just undergone surgery and lived more than an hour away, headed over to her apartment, only to find her laying on the bedroom floor.
By that time, Wasser's organs had already begun to fail, but luckily, the nearest hospital was only a few blocks away. Though she suffered a heart attack while en route. Had it not been for the infectious disease specialist on staff, no one would have been able to figure out why things were going so wrong. After inquiring about Wasser's menstrual cycle, the doctor discovered that she was wearing a tampon. After the test results came back, it was uncovered that she indeed had Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), which often results from toxins produced by Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria.
"TSS is very rare," said Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist and a clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine. "At the height of the TSS epidemic in 1980, there were about 200 cases in the U.S., and one of the major discoveries was that it was really a phenomenon related to tampon usage. The major guideline that occurred was the recommendation that women use the least absorbent tampon that they could, and many of the really super absorbent tampons that were on the market were removed."
But such isn't the case now, and a super plus tampon like Wasser used, specifically meant to aid women with protection from heavy flows, is commonplace.
Though she didn't know it then, Wasser was already in the throes of the disease, which starts with a fever rising from 102 degrees and beyond, then leads to desquamates, or skin shedding -- especially of the palms and soles -- 1-2 weeks after onset. Though coming in and out of a medically induced coma, she remembered the tar-like substance (likely bacteria) that was being drained from her body into huge jars.
"They told my mom and my stepdad to prepare my funeral, because there was no way I'd survive, based on how bad the damage was and the severity of my situation," Wasser said. "I woke up a week-and-a-half later from a coma, and I felt like my legs and feet were on fire. Then they starting to become discolored. And I heard a nurse talking about a 24-year-old patient who would need a below-the-knee amputation. It took me some time to realize she was talking about me."
But what would a star athlete do without her legs, Wasser thought?
Wasser begged and pleaded to her mom and doctors to save her limbs, but gangrene had set in and was moving up her leg at a rapid speed, the result of seriously low blood pressure, another byproduct of the disease. Thus, Wasser's lower right leg, as well as the toes on her left foot had to be removed. She was given a 50 percent chance of ever walking again.
"I was in the hospital for four months and after they sent me home, I was in a wheelchair for eight months," Wasser said.
But losing a limb wouldn't slow her down. Thereafter, she committed herself to using her platform wisely.
"I've now returned to fashion, and I'm using the connections I have through it," she said. "I have purpose. Through sharing my story -- I'm getting emails from women who had TSS in 1978, and mothers who are in the ICU and forcing their doctors to read my article because they aren't paying attention to the potential symptoms."
Wasser told one such story of a doctor who uncovered that his patient had TSS from a woman who pushed him to read her story.
Now, Wasser just wants to help save lives.
"I didn't have that encouragement when I was first grappling with TSS," Wasser said. "I didn't know anyone who had [it], because I think the disease is pushed under the rug as a whole. So here I am trying to educate the world and force a change for good. It's surprising how many lives have been affected by it over the past 30 years, and there aren't [many] statistics being kept about it."
Wasser found a major ally in New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who has brought the Robin Danielson Act in front of Congress nine times. The bill gives women knowledge about the materials that make up feminine hygiene products and their long-term effects.
Of the legislation, Wasser said: "It has been rejected nine times, which is ridiculous for such a basic right."
She continued, "It's a very important bill, and we all have the right to know what we're putting in our bodies. Many more people need to be aware of it, so we can actually make a change."
But Wasser said she has seen a change in the marketplace since she began sharing her story.
Now, fashion and modeling have taken on a completely new meaning for Wasser. Taking photos, posing in campaigns and walking the runway have now given her the chance to show people the beauty in prosthetics.
"I want the image of disabled people like myself to change into a picture of strength," she said. "Fashion needs to redefine its idea of beauty and have more of an open mind."
Wasser even admitted that she was a bit of a mean girl in her younger years.
"I used to look at fashion from a superficial standpoint, and I can admit now that I wasn't so nice of a person," she said. "I was a bit of a jerk, and going through all of this has changed my outlook and opinion on so many things."
When it comes to inclusivity in the fashion industry, Wasser agrees that progress is happening, albeit slowly. She has walked on the runway for fashion line Chromat as well as other globally recognized brands and is modeling as one of the faces of Kenneth Cole's Fall 2016 ad campaign.
She said she's proud of the boundaries she has helped to break so far.
"It's a conversation that is ongoing, and social media is giving disabled people all over the globe a platform," Wasser said. "The industry has become more accepting, because they're realizing how many people need that representation and visibility."
As for her future with basketball, Wasser is still hitting the courts.
"Don't get me wrong, my handle game is still strong," she said. "And my girlfriend has two amazing boys who are die-hard athletes, so I shoot around with them and coach them however I can. I have a love for the game that will never be broken, regardless of my circumstances. I'm always going to be around it and involved in it."
But Wasser said her next endeavor, surprisingly, is music, and she has just finished her first EP.
"I used to take photos as therapy, but [performing] also serves the same purpose -- just in a different way," she said. "I'm just happy to have a second chance at living, so I want to make it a good one."
Faith Cummings writes for Paper Magazine and InStyle.com, among other publications. Check her out on Twitter @fcummings to see more of her work.