Like many other Nevada residents, Lauren Molasky Fierst traveled to California for her transplant surgery
“At the end of the day, even if all you have is just the ability to take a breath, that’s enough to be grateful for,” says Lauren Molasky Fierst, a Las Vegas native battling cystic fibrosis (CF). In 2020, her condition grew more severe and she needed a double-lung transplant to survive.
Fierst was diagnosed with CF at birth. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation describes the disease as “a progressive, genetic disease causing a buildup of thick mucus in the lungs and other organs leading to lung damage and respiratory failure.”
After a long waiting game and undergoing all the qualifying tests, the moment finally arrived. She was to receive a healthy, new pair of lungs. Her transplant surgery, an experience she describes as a rebirth, arrived at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[It] definitely [was] a challenge to have a transplant amid COVID. I was never expecting that. You wait for so many years to have this life-changing procedure and this new chance to have somewhat of a normal life. And then it’s [hampered] by COVID, and all the things that go along with COVID,” says Lauren Molasky Fierst. “At the time of my transplant I had 12 percent lung function, and my lung function is 95 percent now. I think of my donor every single day.”
Lauren Molasky Fierst’s life-changing experience, a testament to her passionate advocacy, compelled her to share the significance of organ donation. She works on a national level to raise awareness for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and serves as a spokesperson for the Nevada Donor Network. Although she is not currently writing for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, she has contributed to their website in the past blogging stories related to battling CF and penned a transparent account of receiving a transplant.
“Post transplant, I received a lot of messages from people that I don’t know saying that they were inspired, and that they became an organ donor because of me,” she says. “I feel like I’m honoring my donor in that sense. It’s like this spiritual connection. I don’t know anything about him. But to have that impact, I wish his family knew. I hope that they know the impact that they’ve had.”
She is one of many saved by an organ donor, but there are still hundreds of Nevada residents that need a match. According to the Nevada Donor Network, 618 Nevadans are still waiting for a transplant and as of August 2022, there are 1,575,965 Nevadans registered as organ donors. The lack of a fully equipped and licensed multi-organ transplant institute in Nevada is a real issue.
A single organ donor has the potential to save up to eight lives and enhance over 75 others.
Lauren Molasky Fierst and her family also had to relocate for her transplant surgery amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Nevada’s University Medical Center (UMC) only has one transplant center and it only performs kidney transplants. Many locals must travel out of state to undergo transplant surgeries to save their lives, which adds more financial and emotional burdens to their health journey.
Nevada may not have a multi-organ transplant center yet, but Nevada Donor Network President, Steven Peralta, explains how their organization is working towards constructing one. The Foundation he serves also has aided many families financially needing to relocate for a transplant surgery.
“We have currently raised over $12 million dollars towards our ‘End the Wait’ campaign to build a transplant institute for Nevada,” Peralta explains. “We need $35 million to start. In order to begin a new transplant program, you must become accredited with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS). To do so, you must perform a minimum of 10-12 transplants pro bono with no insurance reimbursements.”
Peralta continues, “UMC currently has a kidney transplant program for our state. The second most in demand organ transplant is the liver. That’s where we will start. Each liver transplant is at minimum $500,000+ and we need to do 10-12. The other part of our campaign revolves around the investment in technology, equipment, and the specialists needed to perform these surgeries.”
Like Lauren Molasky Fierst, many transplant patients living in Las Vegas traveled to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Transplant Center for their medical procedures. “But Las Vegas, being the city that it is, should have a facility and doctors that can help and that can do transplants. So I want to support them and bring awareness to them and help,” says Lauren Molasky Fierst.
Following her four-month hospital stay at UCLA, she walked out of the medical facility two weeks to the day of her operation. This led me to ask, what was one of the most memorable moments she experienced upon returning home? A memory flooded back to her of a family trip to Joshua Tree, which they took about five weeks post-surgery.
“We were hiking, and we ate lunch out there and played and laughed. I remember sitting on this rock. I was thinking of my donor and I honestly was almost speechless because I could not believe that I was hiking and breathing. And I was okay. I couldn’t even walk from room to room before.”
She continues, “Unless you know the feeling of not being able to breathe, it’s an all-consuming feeling, like you are being suffocated 24/7. It’s a very difficult sensation. So just not having that and just being able to do anything with ease — exercise, laugh, run and breathe — [that] is the most memorable thing.”
A serious surgery affects more than the patient, it also impacts their family. As a husband, father, nurse and caregiver for his wife, Christopher Fierst speaks on another side of such a life-altering experience. A caregiver plays a vital role in a survivor’s story, too.
“The truth is, as a medical professional, and as a caregiver, there’s a much different experience a person has, even though you’re paying witness to that person’s experience, you almost don’t get to have your own experience out loud because it doesn’t compare to what the other person is going through. So you kind of take on a somewhat quiet, submissive, empathetic and selfless role,” says Christopher Fierst. “But the caregiver experience is actually something that’s probably not talked about enough and very important, and it’s extremely exhausting. And even overwhelming at times, especially for people who are trying to balance career and caregiving.”
Christopher Fierst describes his wife as an optimistic warrior and a mother who is loving to a selfless capacity. “She’s always trying to see the good in things and focus on the good and not let the distractions of fear get in her way of maintaining hope.”
To battle this disease, a condition she calls “horrific,” is no easy feat. Her illness didn’t disappear just because she underwent surgery. Even with all the suffering she’s endured, her unwavering optimism remains impermeable.
“It’s always hard for me to hear people complain about really small, insignificant things,” Lauren Molasky Fierst says. “Because even me, I don’t complain about the things that I’ve been through. I know that there are people who have gone through and are going through things way worse. There are people whose lungs I’ve seen that were 10 times worse. I look at all of these other parts of the world that are suffering unimaginable things that we can’t even we can’t even put ourselves in those situations.”
Despite her daily struggles with her disease, she stays active in the Las Vegas community. Lauren Molasky Fierst received the Breath of Life Award at the Cystic Fibrosis Gala earlier this year. She also is an author. In vein with Shel Silverstein, her first poetry book, “The Sky Cracked Open,” was inspired by her children. The Las Vegas native says she has a second book, a new podcast and design projects underway.
She will also be honored for her philanthropic service by the Nevada Donor Network at their forthcoming annual Inspire Gala, which will be held at the downtown Las Vegas event space, Nine-Twenty.
Speaking of Nine-Twenty, she also serves as the venue’s creative director. As for her husband, he decided to make a career change when they returned to Las Vegas. He stepped away from the medical field to work with her family’s commercial land development business. Moving back to Las Vegas post-surgery gave them a fresh start, says her husband, an opportunity for a new beginning.
“I try to remind myself of what I’ve been through, and that it’s okay to just be. For many years, I was fighting for survival,” says Lauren Molasky Fierst. “It was a fight to live. So just being, actually feels really nice sometimes.”
Find tickets for the Inspire Gala, a Nevada Donor Network event, slated for Saturday, August 27, 2022, in the Downtown Arts District, hosted by the Molasky family.