Damien, 12, went to his math and science teacher Finn Lanning in 2018 and told him he wouldn’t come to AXL Academy in Aurora, Colorado, after Thanksgiving break.
“He was one of the few new students,” Lanning, 37, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “He was studious and smart and funny, and he was in a couple of my elective classes as well, so we’d gotten to know each other a little bit.”
But he didn’t know that Damien had focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, an autoimmune disease that had damaged his kidneys. And the worst thing was Damien was living in foster care for the past four years.
“It was hard for him to find placement because he was sick,” says Lanning. “He told me he had to leave the foster home he was living in and was moving into the hospital because they didn’t have another place for him. I remember the kind of sitting there with him and not knowing what to say.”
He was keen to help the seventh-grader outside of the classroom. When Damien left school, Lanning started to meet him weekly at Denver’s Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center. His kidneys had fully damaged, he was on dialysis 12 hours a day and he desperately needed a kidney transplant.
Lanning came to know that the teen had been taken off the waiting list because he needed a stable home environment where his health and recovery could be effectively monitored. So, he took a further step and help change the young boy’s fate.
“I had no experience being a parent, but I couldn’t look away,” says Lanning, who qualified to foster Damien in March 2019 — making way for the teen’s successful kidney transplant in June that same year. “I never thought I would end up being a father.”
Lanning took intensive training to learn how to manage the boy’s daily 12-hour dialysis and became in charge of everything. He took care of everything from buying him the right kind of toothpaste to scheduling his doctors’ appointments.
“I’d thought a lot about this decision,” he says. “I didn’t want to be another person in a long line who’d made a commitment to him and then couldn’t keep it. I wanted him to trust me and feel comfortable.”
A GoFundMe page has helped Lanning in all his efforts to provide necessary stuff to Damien in his daily expenses. He also takes time off from work to care for him.
On June 14, 2019, Damien, then 13, finally got the kidney match.
Unfortunately, the transplant extended his FSGS. It is now been in remission since September — leading to more than two months of invasive treatments.
Damien started going to school in August and is playing school sports and swimming. After homework and chores, the two like cooking together (crab and shrimp boil is a favorite).
They celebrated this past Christmas with Lanning’s family in Wichita, Kansas, where Damien sang karaoke for the first time.
“You kind of lose hope after a while when you’re living in the hospital,” admits Damien, who loves going with Lanning to the movies and arcade. “But now I can settle in, go to school, make friends and live a good life.”
Adds Lanning: “It’s super cool to react on how different things are and to see him be able to just enjoy things that regular kids get to enjoy. I never expected this to be my life, but I’m so happy it is. We’re in it together.”
“Students Collect Money To Surprise Teacher Who’s Been Sleeping In The School”