"I never expected this to be my life, but I’m so happy it is. We’re in it together," says Finn Lanning about his former student Damien

By Caitlin Keating
February 20, 2020 02:42 PM
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It was a brief moment that changed the course of both of their lives.

Damien, 12, walked up to his math and science teacher Finn Lanning in 2018 and told him he wouldn’t be returning 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 what he didn’t know until then was that Damien had focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, an autoimmune disease that had seriously damaged his kidneys. And to make matters even worse, Damien had also been 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 kind of sitting there with him and not really knowing what to say.”

But, without hesitation, he knew he had to help the seventh-grader outside of the classroom walls. After Damien left school, Lanning began to visit him weekly at Denver’s Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center. His kidneys had shut down, he was on dialysis 12 hours a day and he desperately needed a kidney transplant.

Credit: capturedbymarcela.com

When Lanning learned that the pre-teen had been taken off the waiting list because he lacked a stable home environment where his health and recovery could be effectively monitored, he knew he wanted to step up 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.”

For more about Finn Lanning and Damien, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe now.

Finn Lanning
| Credit: Go Fund Me

Yet that’s exactly what happened. Lanning underwent intensive training to learn how to administer the boy’s daily 12-hour dialysis and became in charge of everything from buying him the right kind of toothpaste to scheduling his doctors’ appointments.

“I’d really 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 all along as he provides for Damien’s daily expenses and takes time off from work to care for him.

Lanning was there for Damien when he placed back on the transplant list, only to find out the kidney wasn’t a match. But the following month, on June 14, 2019, Damien, then 13, finally got the kidney he so desperately needed.

Unfortunately the transplant exacerbated his FSGS — which has now been in remission since September — leading to more than two months of invasive treatments, including chemotherapy and plasmapheresis, a process that removes plasma from the blood.

These days, the two are only focusing on the bright future they have ahead. Damien, who went back to school in August, is playing school sports and swimming. After homework and chores, the two like cooking together (crab and shrimp boil is a favorite).

They spent 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.”