On New Year’s Eve of 1992, when he was 22 years old, Douglas Lack’s parents took him to the emergency room of Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, hoping finally to learn why the recent college graduate seemed to be constantly battling flu-like symptoms.
It was the beginning of a three-month medical odyssey that led to an ongoing 20-year health battle for Lack, the fine and performing arts department leader at Holliston High School, where he has taught for 13 years.
Lack was diagnosed with granulomatosis with polyangiitis, an autoimmune disease that has been treated and managed for two decades with chemotherapy and cortisone--treatments that have damaged his joints--he has had hip replacement surgery--and his kidneys. His doctors tell him that before long, he will need a kidney transplant.
With a three-to-five year wait for a deceased donor, on average, Lack said a living donor is his best hope. Lack recently began reaching out to his network of friends and colleagues, a network centered in Holliston.
“I live in Medway, but Holliston is my community,” he said. “This is where I work and where I have nurtured and taught students. People here have helped me tremendously in the past when I have missed work. Parents and students made me meals and other teachers gave me sick days. I feel this is my community.”
The decision to take his dilemna public was a difficult one, but Lack feels t it's his best hope for a good outcome.
Certainly Lack has had an impact on many Holliston students in his 15-year career in education, which he launched even as he began undergoing chemotherapy treatments. "I could have pulled the covers up over my head and gave up. But I decided I need to do something to give back. A lot of people helped me in that time and I wanted to find a way to help others."
Lack's creative energy and focus on students is visible across Holiston High School, from the gallery space known as Studio 370 he helped create in 2006--and where the art school work of two former is now being shown--to the trophy cases brimming with Boston Globe Scholastic Art and other awards given to his students. His own awards include the 2006 Massachusetts Art Education Association Educator of the Year Award.
Late one recent afternoon, one of Lack's classrooms remained a beehive of activity after school as students in the art club worked on a variety of art projects.
Students called out his name--"Mr. Lack"-- as he weaved around worktables, fielding questions and listening to problems. Students seemed to know they'd get his attention, if not necessarily the answer, which he's likely to let the student arrive at on his or her own.
"He's a great teacher," said Hannah Cohen, a 2008 graduate of HHS and now a senior at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she plans to receive her master's to prepare for a career in art education herself. "He was always very enthusiastic and excited about ideas I had and other students had and very encouraging but also very constructive in his own way. He encouraged us to take risks and try things we weren't as familiar with, to try something new no matter what the outcome would be.
"He was just there as a mentor and as a friend too, even to kids that weren't in art classes or focused on art," Cohen added. "Kids could come and hang out in his class and just stop by to say hi. He was always very open and welcoming to everyone."
Cohen said she was aware while at HHS that Lack had battled health issues, but was "very struck" by Lack's recent email message that informed students and friends that he would soon need a kidney transplant. "It really hit home for me," she said, because her mother required a lung transplant. She received donations from two living donors--one her brother and another from exploring the extending network. "I am glad I was able to give him those words of encouragement and give him that hope."
"He made art exciting, and something to be serious about," said another former student, Rachel Maynes, now a senior art major at New York University. "He understands his students' needs and caters to them, whether they're art or business school bound."
Maynes said Lack's influence goes wel beyond the classroom.
"It has definitely been a challenge trying to explain to my friends at NYU why I would consider giving a kidney to a high school art teacher, but anyone who knows Mr. Lack doesn't need an explanation," she added. "He is such a kind and caring man who has done so much for me and many other high school students. He opened my eyes to the art world as a serious subject, one that does not take a back seat to math or english."
In addition to seeking a donor, Lack is researching how to establish a fund to help defray the costs incurred by a donor. Living donors typically have a two- to three-week recovery period after the miniminally invasive surgery, he said.
Lack, who is now 42, is hopeful someone will step forward, but also wary of making people feel badly by asking. "People have a lot of reasons why they might not be able to help, and I understand that. I know a lot of people have already called to be screened and I am very appreciative of that," he said. While a direct match with blood type is ideal, a cross-match is also possible if a willing donor is not compatible.
By being proactive, Lack hopes to give himself the best chance at a positive outcome and a long-term future. "The doctors say the time is coming and so we're trying to be proacitive he said. "I feel I have a lot more I want to do, a lot more still to give."
Potential donors can undergo initial phone screenings by calling Living Donor Nurse Coordinator Tracy Brann at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston at (617) 632-9700.