On a hazy late afternoon in New York City, Lauren Manning breezes through the door with an upbeat smile, her husband, Greg, at her side. A gauzy medical sleeve covers her left hand following a recent surgery, but her outstretched right hand is elegantly manicured. “Oh, this was a big deal,” she says with enthusiasm. “I don’t have that many nails left — I lost parts of a few fingers on my left hand — and one of my nails grows oddly. So this manicure was huge. A milestone.”
Every day since September 11, 2001, has been a milestone for Lauren Manning. Burned over 82 percent of her body in the World Trade Center attack, she was given just a 15 percent chance of surviving. Now, a little more than two years later, she is planning a third-birthday party for her son, Tyler. “I just visited the Children’s Zoo in Central Park where we’re going to have it,” she says. “I didn’t grow up with parties like this, but he’s our only child and it brings us great pleasure.”
“What’s great,” says Greg, “is that Lauren will be there. There was a time when we couldn’t be sure …”
Lauren still remembers lying in the brilliant sunshine on the grass median outside the World Trade Center in unspeakable pain — yet “seeing every blade of grass with razor precision,” she says. Walking into the north tower, unaware that a plane had struck, she had been engulfed by a fireball as jet fuel poured down an elevator shaft and exploded. On her back in the midst of the horror, debris raining down around her, Lauren made the decision to live — for Greg and for Tyler, then 10 months old.
She had kissed them both goodbye just minutes earlier in their Greenwich Village apartment, a mile away. A senior vice president and partner at Cantor Fitzgerald who was normally at her desk on the 104th floor by 8 a.m., Lauren was running late that day.
Greg had watched the towers burning from the balcony of their apartment and was certain his wife was dead. When he found her later that morning at St. Vincent’s Hospital, he told her she would be fine and prayed that she would. During the next few months he wrote a collection of heartbreaking e-mails to family and friends documenting her day-to-day battle. They were compiled in a bestselling book, Love, Greg & Lauren, which has been issued in paperback.
It took Lauren, now age 43, as long as six months to return to the apartment she had left on September 11. “Talk about coming home late from work,” she says, laughing. But then her voice cracks. “To be home with Greg, to hug Tyler and just be around him…The sweetness of that is not easy to describe.”
It had been impossible even to envision when she first awoke in the Burn Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital after weeks in a drug-induced coma. Her hands, horribly seared when she pushed open hot metal doors to escape the Trade Center, were immobilized in casts. Unable to talk because of a breathing tube, barely able to move, she felt trapped, helpless, a prisoner in her own body.
As she told a convention of occupational therapists in Pennsylvania several months ago, “As injured as I was, it was almost impossible to imagine I would ever regain meaningful function.” But for Lauren, it was never going to be enough simply to survive. “I wanted my life back. I wanted to dial the phone, drive the car, swing a golf club, all the things I’d previously taken for granted. Most of all, I wanted to be able to pick up and hold my son.”
Dr. Roger Yurt, director of the New York-Presbyterian Burn Center, was optimistic. “Lauren is unusual,” he says. “She puts out 300 percent.”
The milestones — sitting up, standing, taking a step –accumulated. On December 11, three months after the attack, Lauren walked on her own out of the Burn Center to continue her treatment at Burke Rehabilitation Center in suburban White Plains, where she would live for the next three months. At Burke, Lauren began a rigorous regimen of physical and occupational therapy. And the biggest obstacle of all were her hands.
“There would be good days and bad days, breakthroughs and days when I’d feel like I couldn’t do anything,” Lauren says, looking back. “I still remember the first stretching of my fingers when almost every movement brought intense pain.” As she moved through the exercise and therapy sessions, her eyes would well with tears. But she flatly refused to stop. “I’m fine,” she would tell the therapists. “Just keep going.”
Lauren has now had more than 20 surgeries, seven in 2003 alone — complex skin grafts, scar revisions — with more still to come. To get through each day, she has needed 24-hour assistance from two women who work in 12-hour shifts. Just getting dressed is daunting for her. For the first 22 months, Lauren had to wear cumbersome, pressurized Jobst garments and gloves 23 hours a day to prevent scars from thickening and hindering her movements. “It’s like wearing this really tight body stocking — the tighter the better,” she says. “It’s incredibly claustrophobic and hot. And impossible to get in and out of without help.”
In August 2003, to her relief, the required time was cut in half; now she wears the garments for 12 hours at night. “Oh, freedom!” she exclaims. “If Greg or Tyler and I are going someplace, I can now just run out the door without all that paraphernalia. I used to need help just getting a jacket on. Now I can put it on myself.”
Certain losses are permanent. Because of her fragile skin, Lauren cannot go outside without special sun-blocking protective clothing. “I used to love lying out in the sun for hours,” she says wistfully. “Remember baby oil and all that?”
Between surgeries, a daily routine has evolved in the Manning household. Greg takes morning duty with Tyler, who is now an energetic toddler enrolled in preschool, getting his milk and starting his breakfast. Lauren once loved to cook, but she spends little time in the kitchen now. “My skin is still so sensitive,” she says. “If I get a cut, it takes twice as long to heal. So I have to be very careful.”
Tyler, enchanted with his first backpack, loves to yell, “Bye, Mom, I’m going to school!” while Lauren revels in the ordinary everyday-ness of it all. Greg, a senior vice president at Eurobrokers before 9/11, departs next. Since November 2002 he’s been part of the management team at Cantor Fitzgerald, Lauren’s company, which lost 658 people in the attack. “It’s more than just rebuilding a business,” Greg says. “It’s working on behalf of families of people who were Lauren’s colleagues.”
While Lauren hasn’t been back to the office to visit — “It’s not the time yet,” she says — she did speak at the firm’s Central Park memorial on the anniversary of 9/11. She asked families and friends to clap instead of standing for a moment of prayer. “I want to clap until my arms ache,” she told them, “to make so much noise that God can hear us…that we celebrate the time we had with them.” The applause was thunderous. She also quoted from a favorite Wordsworth poem that comforts her: “We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains…”
Those words have become a sort of mantra. “I’m angry absolutely,” she says, “but I don’t live with it. I don’t want to give the terrorists any more time than they’ve already taken from me. I’m grateful to be alive.”
Lauren is usually out of the house by 9:30 a.m. Most weekdays she does some kind of physical or occupational therapy. Several days a week, she spends hours with therapists at New York-Presbyterian Hospital working on gym equipment and computer-controlled resistance machines. Other times, she works out at home or at a neighborhood gym — aerobics, treadmill, free weights. “Sometimes,” she says, “I just grab onto a bar and try to hang from it with as much body weight as I can.
Some ranges of motion I’ll never regain.” The skin on Lauren’s back is tight, due to skin grafting. “But I have to maintain what I have,” she says. “It’s a constant fight.”
Ordinary tasks have gradually become easier. “I can do some buttons, others not. It obviously takes a lot longer to put on a button-down Oxford than a sweater.” She can’t put on a necklace without help, and she cannot thread a needle. Putting on an earring can take forever. “But remember,” she cracks, “I only have to put on one, since I lost part of my left ear.”
Greg remains awed by Lauren’s diligence. “She does absolutely everything she has to do. And now we’re seeing results.” She, in turn, is awed by her husband’s support. “He is an incredibly hands-on powerful human being. He may forget the garbage and his office is more than a mess — but where it counts, he delivers.”
Their progression to what Greg calls “the normal stuff of life” is steady. They go out to favorite restaurants, spend evenings with friends. Lauren can now drive a car again for short periods of time. She waters her vines on the balcony and wonders if it’s too late to plant mums. At night, she reads stories to Tyler. There are, increasingly, the blissful moments when they forget what they’ve been through. Last winter, they watched as two feet of snow fell at their weekend house in Dutchess County, north of the city. “Lauren and Tyler and I were out there,” remembers Greg, “not worried about anything, just having fun, running around in the snow, having this wonderful time.”
Lauren’s eyes briefly mist. “It was just such normal joy,” she says.
Last summer, both Lauren and Tyler visited a riding stable and trotted around on horses. Then, one afternoon, watching Greg and Tyler out in the yard with a Wiffle ball and bat, Lauren was astounded to see her son pop one high in the air. “I got right out there and batted with him,” she says. “That was really great. That’s the stuff that matters.” She roughhouses with her son regularly. Greg used to worry that she might hurt herself; now he says he feels more like a referee.
“Lauren and Tyler have a fabulous relationship,” he says. “People have asked us, ‘What will you tell him about 9/11?’ We’ll tell him what he needs to know. What he knows right now is that his mom is here. That’s enough.”