MILFORD — The season of giving came a little early for Todd and Lauren French this year.
After all, Mr. French got the gift of a lifetime as the recipient of a successful heart transplant at Penn Hospital in Philadelphia last week.
And just about two weeks prior to that, on Oct. 20, the married teachers saw their family grow by one, when Ms. French gave birth to their second child, Penelope Rose “Penny” French.
For the Frenches, both teachers at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in their hometown of Milford, this has certainly been a time to give thanks.
Their recent life-changing events have been the culmination of a long, arduous journey, and they are trying to bring some sense of normalcy back into their lives.
They are certainly grateful that they have managed to come this far, though much of the medical journey remains for Mr. French.
“It’s definitely been the hardest challenge that I’ve ever faced, and Todd has, too,” Ms. French said Tuesday. “It seemed impossible at one point, but we’re slowly getting there day by day.
“I don’t think it’s actually hit either of us. I don’t know if it will hit. We have been through the whole time saying that, one day, we will look back and say, ‘We did it, and we made it,’ but for now, we’re just kind of struggling through day by day.”
After Mr. French’s seven-year struggle with sarcoidosis — a rare inflammatory disease that can affect any organ but is especially bad in the heart and that left him in desperate need of a transplant — Ms. French said she received a phone call around 6 a.m. Nov. 10 that one was imminent. So mom and newborn Penny got in the car and went to Philadelphia to spend the day with Mr. French while they waited.
“Todd told me this was the heart,” said Ms. French. “He said, ‘God knows I can’t go another day with the heart I have.’ He finally headed to the (operating room) around 10 p.m. and called at 10:30 to let us know all was good, and they were getting started.”
She added that her husband’s parents stayed at Penn Hospital throughout the night. Finally, at around 3 a.m. the following day, they received an update that the heart was functioning well and that the procedure had gone smoothly.
His parents were able to see him in recovery at 5:30 that morning, and he was stable.
“Everything is going great with the heart,” said Ms. French. “He is hopefully expected to come home at the end of this week.
“Even though he has the heart now, it’s still quite a long journey because we (will still) have to keep taking multiple trips back up to Penn to check for rejection quite frequently throughout the first year. He also has a special diet, and we have to be very careful about keeping illness away from him. So even though the huge part of it is done, we still have another big part ahead of us.”
Mr. French, 40, had been recently added to the national transplant list as a status 2 patient, which typically implies a one- to two-month waiting period.
At first, it appeared as if he would have his transplant the same week that Penny was born. However, that dream fell apart as the heart chosen for transplantation was deemed unsuitable.
Mr. French was subsequently put back on the waiting list.
All the while, Ms. French was preparing for the birth of the couple’s daughter. Penny joined 3-year-old brother, Teddy, as the newest member of the family.
“Raising a newborn without Todd is not what we thought would happen, but we’re doing it,” she said.
Aaron Brown, a friend of the Frenches’ who lives in Tampa, Florida, but grew up in Milford, said a GoFundMe page set up for the couple by their longtime circle of friends, raised $20,000 within its first 24 hours. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had reached $42,480 out of the $100,000 goal.
“For years, we’ve just always had a tightknit group of friends,” Mr. Brown said. “Some have stayed local in Delaware, while others have spread all around the country, but we converse weekly.
“So as all of this has been going on for the last few years, there’s always been that unknown out there with what was going on with Todd’s health, and now, it’s kind of come to a head, and it’s been difficult. But it’s been extremely uplifting to see the support that’s come out for the family.”
Ms. French said the support her family has received from friends, family and the entire Milford community has been unbelievable — and certainly welcomed.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “We never expected anything like that, never anticipated it, but it definitely will help as we go through this time with both of us not working and everything like that.
“We’ve just constantly had people checking in on us, offering what they could do. We’ve had meal trains and co-workers seeing if we need anything, and our friends and our family have been a huge help.”
Ms. French said she plans on returning to teaching from maternity leave at the end of January, just as long as her husband is doing well. Mr. French will be out a little while longer, as he recovers from his transplant.
“Thank you for all the prayers and love,” Ms. French wrote on the GoFundMe page Friday. “Moving forward we pray that Todd begins to heal, and we pray that over the following days, weeks, and months, his body accepts the heart and recovery is smooth.
“Teddy, Penny, and I can’t wait for dad to be home.”
For updates and to consider a donation, visit the GoFundMe site.