Hundreds of teens battling kidney disease will gather Sunday at the Glendale Hilton for an annual prom created to give them an opportunity to make merry and potentially offer support and guidance to one another.
Organizer Lori Hartwell missed her own senior prom at Herbert Hoover High School because she was on dialysis. Now, at 51, she emphasized that "it's never too late to be a prom queen." This year's Calypso-themed Renal Teen Prom marks its 19th anniversary.
"I didn't always identify with my peers because I was dealing with life-and-death issues and their issues may have been trying to pass a test or date somebody," Hartwell said.
The event, put on by Hartwell's nonprofit Renal Support Network, will feature tropical decorations, dancing, renal-friendly food, a photo booth and a special appearance by actor and musician Jack Black.
Black, star of the recent reboot of "Jumanji," was introduced to the prom more than 10 years ago by a family member who had undergone a transplant. He has been a familiar face ever since.
"He's been very supportive, and he's so wonderful with the kids," Hartwell said of Black, who often signs autographs and performs at the prom.
Notre Dame High School student Gemma Lafontant, 15, has been looking forward to the event for over a year.
She had her dress picked out and was all set to attend last year's prom when she suddenly fell ill.
"She got sick that day because of her disease. Unfortunately, it happens," Gemma's mother and Burbank resident, Charlene, said. So, she wasn't able to attend.
Now, just one month shy of celebrating the one-year anniversary of her kidney transplant, Gemma has a new dress and is ready to attend this year — and every year until she is 24, the oldest attendees can be, her mother said.
Federal health privacy laws prevent health professionals from introducing patients to one another, "so it becomes more important, creating networking events where patients can meet each other and hopefully create friendships that last a lifetime," Hartwell said.
Although Hartwell graduated from Hoover High, she said she went to campus less than three weeks total her senior year. She knew almost no one in her graduating class.
Hartwell has had four kidney transplants and 50 surgeries, and said she wants to let the teens know that "just because you have a chronic illness, you don't have to give up on your dreams."
She has been married for 20 years and, in 2002, published "Chronically Happy: Joyful Living in Spite of Chronic Illness," which she credits with catapulting her organization to a national level.