Standing Tall | Lauren Wasser’s Life After TSS
In October 2012, Lauren Wasser woke up to a nightmare. Lying in a hospital bed, her svelte model figure had been pumped with 80 pounds of fluid, her long blonde hair had been shaven off, and she had excruciating pain in her legs.
“They put me in a medically induced coma for a week and a half, I was on life support, and when I woke up I had no idea where I was or what had happened,” says Wasser. The last thing she remembers is passing out in her Santa Monica apartment from what she thought was a bad case of the flu. The next day, she was found face down and unresponsive on her bedroom floor and rushed to St. John’s hospital where she arrived, doctors say, just ten minutes from death.
But it wasn’t the flu. When doctors couldn’t stabilize Wasser, they called an infectious disease specialist who asked if she had a tampon in. She did, and lab tests confirmed that Wasser was experiencing toxic shock syndrome. “When I woke up, there a jar next to me that was just black. It was all the toxins being flushed out of my bloodstream,” she recalls. “They had to keep replacing the jar because there was so much, and that’s what was killing me.”
“TSS has been an issue for 30 years. I’m 29, it’s something that’s been around since before I was born. It’s a huge epidemic that’s never gone away, but it’s always been very hush hush and it hasn’t been talked about. I hope girls will read my story, realize this is a huge issue, and hopefully want to fight for safer products. It’s about being educated and aware, talking and having these discussions. It’s still a taboo subject and that’s why we are where we are. We’re all women, we make babies, we have our periods, it’s the most natural thing,” she tells me with great conviction. And she’s right. “Know what you’re putting in your body. The vagina is the most absorbent part of a woman’s body, so it’s crazy that we’re putting something so toxic in the most vulnerable part of our bodies. It’s not worth it.”
The infection had turned into gangrene - hence the relentless burning pain in Wasser’s legs, which she says were “beginning to mummify” - and she was faced with the agonizing task of signing papers that authorized doctors to amputate her right leg. They initially suggested that she amputate both, as her left foot was beginning to rot, but she fought to keep it. They ended up just removing her left toes.
“My mom modeled, so I was born into the industry - I grew up seeing what perfection was,” she says. “The hardest part of the situation was not only almost losing my life, but feeling as though I had my whole identity stripped from me. I was like, how am I going to be loved and accepted again? I would look at my prosthetic leg and be so angry with it.”
“Jennifer Rovero - who’s now my girlfriend - was my motivation to stop looking at my prosthetic as a negative thing, to get myself walking and realize that that was the only way I was going to start living my life again,” Wasser explains, adding that Rovero was the first to photograph her with her prosthetic leg in a series of photos that went viral on VICE. “To have my girlfriend be an amazing photographer who showed me myself in this new body, this new form and to accept it, to say I’m beautiful and help me reveal myself as I did… the message was so much more than my physical appearance.”
Since then, Wasser has modeled for Nordstrom and Kenneth Cole, and last year, she walked the runway for Chromat, showing and celebrating a different side of beauty. She’s also traveled the world giving motivational talks, inspiring others to find that strength, resilience and support that brought her out of that hopelessness she felt when she woke up in the hospital almost five years ago.
“Doing my job and spreading awareness, having these families reach out, connecting with people and helping them through these crazy times, is priceless. It’s not even just TSS. Yes, TSS is the cause of it all, but it’s also everything I had to do to get to this point. Those extraordinary obstacles I never thought I’d be able to persevere through,” she says. “It’s little kids going through horrible situations at home, or being bullied at school, who want to take their own lives. They contact me every day saying things like ‘I read your story and I don’t want to give up.’ I know this is my purpose in life. I have a duty to be here and to try and encourage and save as many lives as possible.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Wasser revealed that because she doesn't have her left toes, her heel is so badly damaged that she will soon have to amputate her left leg as well - something she's currently mentally preparing herself for. After a short pause, she perks up and tells me, "I’ve come to the realization that our bodies are just our vessels, I’ll just have two gold legs and keep on killing it."