The original paintings that cover Abbie Laker’s walls mirror the teenaged artist’s spirit. “I’m always drawn to color,” she explains. “That’s how I look at life: Bright; happy; cheerful.” To look at the paintings, you’d never guess how many obstacles have threatened to cloud Abbie’s sunny outlook.
Her complex medical journey began when she was born with underdeveloped kidneys which created life-threatening lung problems. Greg and Jeanne Laker of Zionsville, Ind., were shocked to learn that their full-term baby girl was gravely ill and needed to be rushed by ambulance to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Neonatologist Mervin Yoder, M.D., oversaw Abbie’s care for six weeks in the Riley Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Special ventilators helped her grow strong enough for kidney surgery at 4 weeks of age. “Abbie was at Riley within six hours of being born, and that’s why she’s here,” says Jeanne. “There were opportunities at Riley that she wouldn’t have had at a different hospital.”
After Abbie had surgery to remove one kidney and reconstruct the other, the Lakers finally brought their baby home for the first time. They knew she would need a kidney transplant someday, but other complications surfaced first. Abbie developed severe reflux and wasn’t gaining weight. Surgeon Fred Rescorla, M.D., performed a Nissen fundoplication surgery to stop the reflux, and gave her a G-tube for feeding. She wasn’t able to eat until after she received her mother’s kidney in a transplant surgery at age 5. Neither mother nor daughter can talk about that experience without tears. “We’re inseparable,” says Abbie. “We’re basically bonded at the hip.”
During her many hospitalizations, Abbie picked up her paintbrush to relieve her stress. Art also turned into a way to give back to Riley. Her painting of a cardinal was chosen to adorn a Riley Holiday Card in 2006. “I’ve always loved painting—it’s my most comforting thing,” Abbie explains.
She needed that comfort after her most recent medical challenge. At age 10, Abbie went back to Riley for spinal fusion surgery to correct her severe scoliosis curvature. She faced the physical pain with courage, but encountered a different type of pain when she returned to school: her peers began to exclude her. “I felt like it might have been different if she had a cast on,” said Jeanne. “I just felt like there was no support.” Abbie says she felt singled out for her differences. “I’m not like everybody else, I know that,” says Abbie. “I was just unhappy. I was miserable. I didn’t have friends I could trust.”
After transferring to University High School, Abbie now finds herself surrounded by support. The junior is looking forward to her second Riley Dance Marathon at school this year, and the chance to lead by example as a Riley Champion. “It’s such an honor,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for me to give back everything I’ve been given at Riley.”