Californian Lauren Wasser is a beautiful young woman, but the 29-year-old has been through some terrible times. Five years ago, just as her modeling career was taking off, a rare illness struck her down. Doctors thought that she would die. They put her chance of surviving at just one percent – but that proved to be enough. Wasser fought back and pulled through. Unfortunately, complications affected her right leg, and the limb had to be amputated. Wasser began adjusting to life with a prosthetic. But, sadly, it was to prove that her fight was not over yet.
Wasser is actually the daughter of Pamela Cook, a supermodel of the 1980s who worked alongside such famous beauties as Cindy Crawford and Stephanie Seymour. Right from her first photo-shoot for Italian Vogue at the tender age of four months, Wasser was part of the modeling world. A single mom who worked closely with the European fashion houses, Cook moved to L.A. when her daughter was four years old. Wasser then went to school with the offspring of A-list Hollywood celebrities.
The schoolgirl grew up into a sociable, sports-loving adult. She won a scholarship to play basketball at a top school, but ended up turning down the opportunity in order to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Wasser’s modeling career was on the up, and everything was going great for her until the fateful date of Wednesday, October 3, 2012. Then an act that millions of women perform every day would prove almost fatal for the aspiring runway star.
The then 24-year-old Wasser started her period that day, so she inserted a tampon in the morning. All her mature life, she had followed the health-and-safety rules regarding the absorbent synthetic products to the letter. And this time was no exception. Wasser changed her tampon every three to four hours that Wednesday. But unfortunately, even though she did everything right, Wasser was hit by some terrible luck.
As the day and her period progressed, the model started to feel unwell. She thought it was just the start of a flu bout, but it was something far, far worse. Attending a function that evening, she quickly deteriorated. She drove herself back to her Santa Monica home and began feeling feverish and exhausted. It turned out that Wasser had actually contracted toxic shock syndrome – TSS – a very rare but very serious illness linked to tampon use.
The model quickly became extremely ill and took to her bed, running a high fever. Her mother, worried that she hadn’t heard from her daughter, sent the police to Wasser’s apartment. The first time she heard a knock at her door, Wasser was able to answer it and speak to the officers. They advised her that she was sick and that she should call her mom. She called Cook to say that she was going back to bed, and her mother responded by asking her if she required an ambulance. By this time, the fever had affected Wasser’s capacity to think straight and left her confused. Cook called the cops once more, and this time they found Wasser collapsed on the floor of her bedroom and dangerously close to death.
She was rushed to St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, where doctors frantically tried to find out what was wrong, and how they could treat it. Her temperature was at 104°F and her blood pressure was erratic. As luck would have it, there was an infectious disease doctor on duty there that night. This was a slice of serendipity that almost certainly saved Wasser’s life. The specialist ascertained that the model was wearing a tampon and deduced that she was suffering TSS. Nonetheless, the emergency room staff feared that they had almost no chance of saving her.
All of Wasser’s organs had begun to fail, so consequently she was placed into a medically induced coma. Doctors told Cook that her daughter almost certainly wouldn’t make it through. And yet, miraculously, Wasser managed to do just that. But when the model woke up, she was in utter agony. Her right leg had turned gangrenous due to a lack of blood circulating to it. She was rushed to a facility at UCLA for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber to try and re-oxygenate her limb, but it was too late. The gangrene was spreading, and, tragically, Wasser was going to have to lose her leg if she was going to survive.
The runway model ended up losing all of her right leg from the knee down, plus the heel and toes of her left foot. Wasser had survived an illness that had almost killed her, but lost a limb in the process. She was devastated. For a young woman who loved sports as much as she did, her new condition was virtually unbearable. The only thing that kept her from succumbing to her despair and doing something drastic was the thought of her family.
But gradually, her mental health started to improve as well as her physical condition. Wasser received counseling at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center which she found positive, and she also got a beautiful golden leg to wear as a prosthetic. Jennifer Rovero, a photographer girlfriend, also helped the model by visually documenting her recovery process. During this time, the duo would ask other girls they met if they knew of or believed in toxic shock syndrome. The negative responses they got disheartened Wasser and Rovero.
And, unfortunately for Wasser, her TSS story still wasn’t over. In a November 2017 interview with InStyle magazine, she explained that she was still suffering – after years of recovery time had passed. “I grew up playing basketball, but I haven’t been able to run in five years,” Wasser said. She went on to reveal, “I’m in daily excruciating pain. In a few months, I’m inevitably going to have my other leg amputated. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
It was another low point for someone who had already experienced the depths of despair. “I’m in so much pain. It’s a hard decision, but my only way to freedom,” Wasser told People magazine in December 2017. In that same interview, the model spoke about her advocacy for better tampon health-and-safety regulation. She also discussed her desire to start a national conversation about toxic shock syndrome.
“It’s transparency I’m looking for,” Wasser argued. “I think being more honest with the general public about the risks and educating them on using the products, signs to look out for…” She hoped that her recent round of media interviews would make a difference. Wasser was thankful for the opportunity, saying, “[It’s good] just being able to broaden the conversation and open people’s eyes that this is something that really needs to change.” She is insistent that far more research needs to be done on tampons and their use.
Wasser is working with Democrat congresswoman Carolyn Maloney to try and pass the Robin Danielson Act. It takes its name from a woman who died of toxic shock syndrome in 1998. The act would require companies that manufacture menstrual health products to disclose every component used and to have examined the health risks they pose. The bill has been knocked back by Congress no fewer than ten times already, but – as we have seen – Wasser is a fighter and is determined to see it through.
Sadly, in early January 2018, Wasser lost her remaining leg. Rovero was once again on hand to picture the patient as she began life as a double amputee. “It’s now January 16 at 1:45 p.m. and my babe is doing great,” the photographer wrote to her Instagram followers a few days after the surgery. She added, “There’s moments of muscle cramping and nerve pain but despite all of that she’s getting up!”
Wasser also got a surprise while she was in hospital – bronze medallist paralympian Amy Purdy stopped by to see her. Purdy lost both her legs to a form of bacterial meningitis when she was 19 years old and, like Wasser, was expected to not survive. The model was delighted to see the medal-winning athlete. “Thank you so much for stopping by,” Wasser later wrote on her Instagram page. “It really meant the world.”
Purdy wrote on her Instagram about the meet-up as well. “If you don’t know about [Wasser], she is a model and just had her second leg amputated due to toxic shock syndrome,” she said. “Our stories are so similar and in fact they thought I had TSS when I first entered the hospital. Lauren is so beautiful and strong, I’m telling ya, this chick is going to go far.”
Wasser has already come a long, long way. Her determination has seen plenty of awareness raised about the dangers of toxic shock syndrome and the importance of discussing menstruation. “A lot of people are aware, but not everyone is aware,” she told the women’s quarterly magazine Darling in December 2017. “We’re all women and we all get our periods. I don’t think there should be anything remotely gross about it.”
Wasser has also formed a support group for people who have suffered TSS. “I talk to a group of girls – I call them my angels – that I consistently talk with,” she told Darling. She continued, “I’ve been able to help them through the steps. If they’re having a bad day we can all talk. Or, if they have some sort of symptom, they can discuss it with me. It’s cool to not be alone.”
Wasser probably knows that pretty than anyone. After coming home from the hospital after losing her second leg, she posted her gratitude online to everyone who had had her back. “All of this support has made this new normal positive and uplifting!” she wrote on her Instagram feed. “I’m really excited for what’s next!” She posted a photo along with the message. In it she was wearing a T-shirt that simply said, “Undefeated.”