Lena Papadakis

Year of Graduation: 

"Hospitals are amazing institutions — all I’ve ever wanted is to work in one."

Lena Papadakis ’17 is no stranger to hospitals. She and her sisters, Joanna ’17 and Alexandra ’17, were born two months prematurely. By age 10, she had undergone some 40 medical procedures — one of which left her in a month-long, medically induced coma. Doctors determined the triplet had tracheoesophageal fistula, an abnormal opening between her esophagus and her trachea. Over time, they built her a new GI tract from her stomach up.

Given her past, Papadakis could be forgiven for never voluntarily entering a hospital again. Yet the Boston University senior has found inspiration in her childhood experiences. She’s prepping for medical school and working remotely as a clinical research intern in Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s maternal-fetal health department while running the nonprofit she founded, Preemie to Pre-Med.  

We spoke with Papadakis while she was temporarily quarantining at her parents’ home in North Hampton, New Hampshire.

What was the origin of Preemie to Pre-Med?

I got the idea for Preemie to Pre-Med in March while shadowing a doctor in the hospital. I realized how difficult it would be to explain to a child why only one parent could be there and why the playroom was off-limits. I also got involved in COVID-19 advocacy and learned pediatric hospitals and programs were losing money and suspending volunteer programs. I knew I needed to do something. … We launched in October and raised $3,300 for the John Hancock Child Life and Wellness Program at Mass General Hospital in the first month!

What are child life and wellness programs?

They encourage learning and exploration through play while a child is in the hospital — they let kids be kids. That’s something I attribute my non-fear of hospitals to. I don’t remember a lot because I was so young, but the parts I do are good, like going to events such as Queen for a Day or being invited to ride in a helicopter to normalize it because I’d been medevacked once. … Hospitals are amazing institutions — all I’ve ever wanted is to work in one, and I think a large portion of that was encouraged by child life programs. The hospital was never terrifying. I never felt alone.

I understand your nonprofit had its beginnings at Exeter.

In our upper year, Joanna and I created an ESSO club called Just Keep Smiling to donate blankets and stuffed animals to child life programs at Boston Children’s Hospital and Mass General. That evolved into Preemie to Pre-Med, and some of the first people I reached out to in starting this were Exeter friends. It was important for me to come full circle and have these individuals help create this. We now have eight Exonians and 20 other college students working to bring our organization’s mission to life. 

— Sarah Zobel

Editor's note: This interview first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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