MIDDLETOWN – The inspirational signs line Lauren Crupi’s language arts classroom at St. Leo the Great School.
“It’s cool to be kind.”
“Be kind to others.”
Positive messages for sure, but the most powerful of them all — one that students at this Catholic elementary school never will forget — takes place Tuesday morning, when Crupi walks through the door. By the time last school year ended, the 37-year-old was gripped by kidney failure, exhausting herself daily as dialysis loomed.
“Now,” she said, “I’m back and better than ever.”
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The reason: A colleague donated his kidney to her. Mike Daneman, a 33-year-old computers teacher at St. Leo, found out his kidney was a physiological match for Lauren and joined her in transplant surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital on June 1.
“I’m happy to see her back full force,” Daneman said last week, sitting alongside Crupi as they prepared for the start of school. “It was never my intention to teach a lesson. I was just trying to help a friend.”
As an emergency medical technician, he said, “It’s my nature to help people if I can. But I love that so many parents have reached out to me and said, ‘Thank you for teaching my kids a lesson about kindness.’”
Done right, teaching always has been a giving profession. The best educators are mentors by example. But this is next level. This is “be kind to others” to the 10th power.
“You can talk the talk,” St. Leo principal Caroline Fitzgerald said, “but it’s such a beautiful thing that these kids have witnessed somebody making a sacrifice for somebody else.”
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‘You’ve got this’
A Holmdel native, Crupi’s kidneys started failing when she was 25. The slow, steady decline left her struggling last year as she taught sixth and seventh graders and raised two small children.
“I was anemic, lethargic, nauseous, cold all the time, easily out of breath,” she said. “My coloring was gray. I wasn’t able to do a lot. I really expended all of my energy here (at school). When I got home, I would crash.”
Fitzgerald said it never impacted Crupi’s job performance; she remained her usual, upbeat self in the classroom. But colleagues knew. In December, Lauren’s husband Paul posted on Facebook that she would be seeking a kidney donor. Several people she knew got tested for a match.
“I took about a day to think about it,” Daneman said.
He had Lauren’s son Ben, a second grader, in his computers class, and he knew her 5-year-old daughter Caroline would be among his students this year. That sparked some deeply personal motivation: Mike’s mother Theresa had died of cancer when he was 5. He didn’t want these kids to grow up without their mom.
“That was definitely a factor,” he said.
In March, Daneman learned he was the only match of all the prospective donors. Lauren told him herself. On May 31, the final day of school and the day before the transplant, they were greeted by a surprise pep rally, with every student and staffer wearing a green “kidney health” bracelet in a show of solidarity.
“I had to step out of the cafeteria and I cried a little bit,” Mike said.
“That was really emotional,” Lauren said. “The support just made you feel like, ‘You’ve got this.’”
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‘Everything is brighter’
Daneman’s kidney was removed laparoscopically, through five small incisions. Within two weeks, he was cleared to resume normal activity. Some fatigue and quick-windedness lingered for about a month. Instead of staying in his Matawan apartment, which was only accessible via stairs, he lived with his father during his recovery.
It took a bit longer for Crupi to bounce back. On immunosuppressive medication to help her body accept the new organ, she remained isolated for three months. That period ended just in time for school.
“I feel amazing,” she said. “Since the day of the surgery, I’ve felt completely different. I turned to my husband and said, ‘Is this how healthy people feel every day?’”
Perspective is everything. Invigorated, Crupi decorated her classroom with some extra flourishes — a bit more color here, a new motivational poster there.
“Everything is brighter,” she said, speaking of both her room and her world.
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Back to school is always a time of high hopes, fresh promise, renewed enthusiasm. At St. Leo the Great, all of that is heightened this week because one teacher saved another’s life, imparting an example that will stay with these students long after they’ve graduated.
“This isn’t the kind of stuff you get in textbooks — and this is the stuff that’s so important,” Crupi said. “I hope they take away from it that if someone needs help, you should help them. And you should always show kindness, because you never know what battle someone is going through.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at email@example.com.