In remembrance of Alena Frey

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The endowed WLP/Alena Eftihia Frey Memorial Scholarship has been established in her memory through the generosity of friends and family

USF College of Public Health alumna Alena Frey’s passion for public health was evident during her tenure as an undergraduate student. While working toward earning her bachelor’s degree in public health, Frey always found a way to help promote the health of the community.

USF College of Public Health alumna Alena Frey. (Photo source: Facebook)

She served as an HIV/AIDS testing counselor at the USF Health BRIDGE Clinic and the Ybor Youth Clinic. She was also the president of the Undergraduate Public Health Student Association and led the delegation to San Diego during the ASPPH meeting, a GloBull Ambassador, and a member of the Sigma Delta Tau sorority. She was also a recipient of a USF Stampede of Service award for her work. Shortly after graduation from the COPH in the spring of 2019, she was part of the COPH alumni group who visited the APHA’s advocacy bootcamp in Washington D.C.

Alena Frey (front left) with COPH classmates at the APHA’s advocacy bootcamp in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Zamani)

She was currently working toward her master’s in health science from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. While there, she was a kidney advocacy committee member with the National Kidney Foundation, working alongside elected officials to promote legislation supporting kidney disease and organ donation—a cause for which she had firsthand experience.

Frey, who graduated from Plant High School in Tampa, Fla. was the recipient of a heart transplant in her infancy and a kidney transplant as a teenager.

Frey, who passed away at the age of 23 on June 19, 2020, left a lasting impression on many COPH alumni and faculty during her time at the college.

Frey and COPH classmates at APHA. (Photo source: Facebook)

“Between her friends, family, colleagues and myself we all admired Alena’s positive energy and just the strong ‘can-do’ attitude,” said COPH classmate and partner Shawn Zamani. “I think most folks were surprised to learn about her history of organ transplantation, mainly because she never felt limited or paradoxically burdened by such gifts.”

Alena Frey with her USF COPH classmate during their study abroad experience in London. (Photo source: Facebook)

“Alena was a very bright and caring student,” said Dr. Rita DeBate, a USF COPH professor of health education who had Frey in her London study abroad course. “As a class we all developed a special relationship as we walked the streets of London learning about epidemiology and the history of public health. After the course, Alena volunteered with me to develop the USF WellCheck program, now housed in the Success and Wellness Coaching program. I always valued her work, her creativity, and her thoughtfulness. She was passionate and dedicated to public health and I enjoyed working with her. I miss her laugh and her smile; she will always have a special place in my heart.”

Alena Frey in 2017. She was enrolled in the Overview of Public Health Programs and Policies with Dr. Alison Oberne. She provided students extra credit opportunity to visit the local Health Department and take a selfie. (Photo courtesy of Oberne)

“Alena was an excellent student. She was always engaged in class, asked questions, and had a thirst for knowledge,” said Dr. Alison Oberne, director of the BSPH program and instructor II at the USF COPH. “Her passion for public health was apparent early on in class and I saw this passion blossom through her involvement and leadership (as president) in the Undergraduate Public Health Student Association.”

(Photo source: Facebook)

“I distinctly remember when she took my Intro to Health Advocacy course, which was when I first got to know her well,” said Dr. Anna Torrens Armstrong, USF COPH assistant professor. “She was already an advocate for the things that were so important to her. Her zest for life was contagious, and once you got to know her, and hear her story, you understood just a little bit better why. She was truly an inspiration to all who knew her. One of our last conversations was about pursuing graduate school. She had big dreams and she didn’t let anything slow her down, so when she asked my opinion, I said, I think you’ve already made up your mind. And she most certainly had. In just a short time, she taught many of us what it means to live fully. I will never forget her.”

Alena Frey with UPHSA members at the USF College of Public Health’s Week of Welcome celebration on MLK Plaza in 2018. Watch video of Alena opening up the live stream of the event via Facebook HERE [VIDEO]. (Photo source: USF COPH’s Facebook Live videos)

“What I remember most about Alena is her willingness to help educate other students about public health. She volunteered at countless events to spread the word about what public health is and how students can get involved. One event sticks out to me the most. Alena was working the UPHSA (Undergraduate Public Health Student Association) table at the College of Public Health’s Week of Welcome event. It was incredibly hot that August afternoon, but she stuck it out all day despite the humidity, educating students about public health programs,” said Laura Rusnak, USF COPH instructor III. “I asked UPHSA members if I could interview them about their interests in public health. Although this meant bravely taking the microphone in front of a large crowd in the middle of the Marshall Center lawn, Alena immediately agreed. She earnestly spoke about her passion for keeping people healthy. Her eloquence in explaining to her fellow Bulls the benefits of working in field of public health still resonates with me.”

Alena Frey with her UPHSA classmate and friend Sarah Callahan (left). (Photo courtesy of Callahan)

“It’s hard to sum up the positive impact Alena had on my life in writing, but I want to try and provide a glimpse. She was a kind, loving, and goofy soul. She was my friend and my mentor who inspired me and encouraged me on all my endeavors, I truly would not be where I am today without her. I will never forget the day she surprised me with a dozen red roses and told me how proud she was of me and my hard work and congratulated me on becoming president of UPHSA. She was always so selfless and put others needs before her own. I miss her so much and I feel a little lost without her, but I learned a lot from her, and I hope to continue to make her proud. I will always look back on our time together in San Diego, at our volunteer events, at our late-night hang outs, and so much more with fondness and admiration. I am so lucky to have known her,” said COPH classmate and friend Sarah Callahan.

Alena Frey with Jahvon Johnson (center) and Stephen Tellone (right) celebrate graduating. (Photo source: Facebook)

 “Alena was more than just a classmate or team member on UPHSA executive board, she became a very close friend,” said Jahvon Johnson, a COPH classmate and friend. “She always supported me in my endeavors to rise to the top, and in making UPHSA a widespread organization that welcomed every student. We grew in friendship together, through volunteering at events, meetings and generally having time to socialize with one another. I was always able to tell her my ambitions, she listened and gave her advice, (that was spot on), and always checked in with me to make sure I was doing fine. She will always be a part of sweetest memories in my college life and I continue to uphold her legacy of being the all-around student and person in life.”

Stephen Tellone (left) with Alena Frey and classmate Jahvon Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Tellone)

“I’m pretty sure every single memory with Alena includes blasting Ariana Grande – which is never a bad thing! Our final year at USF was on full blast – we did mostly everything together at school,” said Stephen Tellone, a COPH classmate and friend. “Her cheerfulness and personality continues to brighten up every single day of mine. I truly couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring and overall better person to call my best friend.”

Alena Frey with her parents, Carlos Frey and Sophia Sorolis, during her undergraduate pinning ceremony at the USF COPH. (Photo source: Facebook)

Frey’s mother, Sophia Sorolis, said that her daughter had written a “TED”-like talk, which she has decided to share in her memory:

If someone were to ask you, what do you live for? What’s your why?

Would you say friends, family, maybe a pet you love dearly? Are some of you having trouble coming up with an answer? I found my reason to live 21 years ago, and then again 5 years ago. I’m not here to give a sob story about my life, but instead supply you with an explanation of what I live for, how I came to realize it, and maybe those of you out there who don’t currently have a reason, will find one.

To begin, 21 years ago I was diagnosed with spongiform myocardium. The easiest way to put it: part of my heart was literally a sponge and would not grow any further. Of course, I don’t remember this, I was a ripe two months of age at the time. Neither my parents nor I would know this would be a catalyst into somewhat of a medically hectic life, but one I wouldn’t change for the world. Back then, transplants were not as evolved as they are now. It required a lot more hospitalization time, treatment, and still was fairly new.

In fact, I was the eleventh child transplanted at my local hospital. I am so lucky to have received this gift of life, a heart from another family’s child. It is impossible for me to understand and know the pain they went through during this time, but for them to allow another child a chance at life, me, is something I can never repay. I can only live a life I would think they would have wanted for their child, one filled with meaningful friendships, growing up as every child does. Going through all the phases of life, transitioning into this scary, sometimes unforgiving place we call “adulthood.” But, I hope, if they are out there, they are happy with the life they have.

Post-transplantation is a complex and frightening world, especially for parents. I am so blessed to have parents that cared just as much for me back then as they do today. My mother took time off work and spent every day in the hospital with me, crib-side. There is truly no love like a mother’s, and I work every day to make sure she is proud of me. My father and sister are amazing, wonderful, caring people. Of course, my sister was only three at the time, so she didn’t really grasp what was going on. And my father, he was and is a champion. Though he stayed at work, he took care of my mother and made sure she was as strong and right-minded as possible in order to take care of me.

My mom often wonders where I get my strength from. And to be honest, I don’t really know. I really don’t like it when people call me brave. What have I done that’s brave? I have simply sat and lived through the various medical issues that have arisen, and luckily, eventually overcame them.

 I compare this to almost like a wave. A very tough wave, I’ll admit, getting cancer was like more a tsunami style wave, and I tried to search for high ground, but I still got wet. It isn’t easy having cancer. But at the age of 13, it’s even more challenging. Your body is trying to grow into its adult form, but your immune system is busy attacking the entire body. I had lymphoma, most likely caused by the immune suppressants I had been taking for my heart transplant.

 These meds work to lower the white blood cells in my body and the immune response so that my transplant organ doesn’t stop working, or as they say in the medical field, reject. It’s a tough balance of these medicines: too much: the patient can get cancer, too little: the immune response isn’t lowered enough and the organ rejects. I’ve seen both effects, both suck.

I don’t really remember much of going through it, but the parts I do remember are not pretty. I know that I stayed in a hospital for about two months during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Watching the seasons change, temperature drop, and life go on through a window on the 5th floor of the PICU is something I do not wish upon my worst enemy. After the chemo and other treatments, my kidneys ended up completely failing. To have to sit and watch your organs fail you, at 13 also sucks. A lot. But life went on.

I survived three years on dialysis. Some days I was awake, feeling great, doing things. Other days, I’d accidentally fall asleep in high school classes and black out from being so anemic.

But amidst all this, I tried hard for grades. They weren’t perfect, I ended up getting a C in an AP class. But looking back, I can’t believe I expected so much from myself at school while I was going through so many things at once.

 I was just a regular HS senior as far as their eye could see. And I was. I went to football games, got my license on the day of my 16th birthday, got into trouble with friends, the usual high school kid stuff. The only difference? I knew at the end of the day or night, I had to come back, connect a tube hanging from my abdomen to a machine for the next 10 hours. It wasn’t glamourous, but it got the job done. Very few people had an idea of what I was going through. I refused to tell people, I didn’t want a pity party, or people to look or treat me differently.

I got the call for a kidney transplant two weeks into my senior year, and I was out almost the entire rest of the year. After three weeks, when I thought I would be going back, I had issues with organ rejection. It was only downhill from there. Problems kept occurring with it, months went by until the actual problem was found. Which of course, only occurs in about 5 percent of transplants. My ureter, near the bladder, had lost blood flow. Essentially all urine created was backed up into my kidney, not a great feeling as I recall. Luckily, I had an amazing team of doctors who were somehow able to attach my old ureter, the one from my long dead original kidneys, to my transplant. It worked. Science is wild isn’t it?

Believe it or not, I did get into a few colleges. I guess some schools really do read those personal essays they make you submit, because that C in the AP class wasn’t very impressive. In all seriousness, here is where I began to realize what I live for.

I moved away to live in a dorm which was my first time truly being on my own. Though I wasn’t far, about a 35-minute drive, it really felt like an entire new state. But I knew I wasn’t doing this alone. I had my family, friends, and doctors supporting this transition.

After freshman year, I became a depressed. I was in my own apartment now, and its where I began to feel so alone, even though again, I had friends, an entire sorority, and lived with one of my best friends. It’s when I really began to see myself for who I was, what I had been through, and how much I had been pushing myself to be the best. I had always felt second best, like I had more to prove, because to my family and cousins I didn’t want to be thought of as the “sick one.” And I surely did not want to be left in the dust academically.

But I remembered, I had more people in my corner than I originally thought. In fact, I live for the people that make up me, because I am just not one person. I never was. 21 years ago, I received someone else’s heart, someone who had an entire life in front of them, if only they had been dealt the right hand of cards. I also live the life of someone who lost his life 5 years ago, who was actually around my age now when he passed. I realized I am not alone, nor will I ever be. I remembered these people and it gave me strength when the sarcoma tumor grew in my bladder, which was highly unlikely for anyone my age. But with the help of great doctors and bladder resection surgery, that wave also passed.

People often say, “pray and thank God for this gift of life and your healing from cancer.” Though I agree I have received a gift, I can’t thank God for this. Because in my mind, I think, why am I praying and thanking God for killing someone else and taking their life away from their family and friends? Everything they ever could have had, is gone. For me? And then again, how can I pray cancer away, if it was God’s plan for me to get it in the first place?

These families, these people, signed up to be organ donors. And unfortunately, the time came where they had to let go of their loved ones, and they did. My family has tried to reach out to the family who donated the heart to pay our respects, but did not get a reply, which we respect immensely. So, everything I do now, I do in part for them. I live three lives, myself and my donors.

I do the things they would have done: have friends, travel, go to college. All these things many people find as normal life activities. I do not. I find them as responsibilities, duties, something I have to do to pay my respects in the only way I know how. And although my donors will never know the life they could have lived, for as long as I go on I promise to give them a life I think they and their families would have wanted. I’ve taken them around North America, to England, France and Switzerland,  and even the coasts of Italy. But of course, there is more, and there always will be.

I don’t stand here to say I feel indebted to their families, in fact I’m sure that’s the last feeling they’d want me to feel. But instead I feel the need to carry on their legacy, to become someone successful and passionate. With every personal and professional success, I thank them, because they gave me another chance at life. My donors are who I live for, who I wake up every day for, even on days when my depression gets the best of me, I know in the back of my mind, or should I say in my chest and in my abdomen, that there are two people, two families, who saved me, 21 and 5 years ago.

I encourage you to leave this conversation and find what you live for. It’s not easy, it took me years to finally understand mine. But there are passions, drives, reasons for living and there is one out there for each and every one of you.

Through the generosity of friends and family, an endowed scholarship in Alena Frey’s memory has been created in the USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy program, which will benefit public health students like Alena for generations to come. Gifts to the WLP/Alena Eftihia Frey Memorial Scholarship in Public Health may be made payable to the USF Foundation, Inc. c/o the Office of Donor Relations, ALC100, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, Tampa, FL 33620, Attn: Beth Corbin or online at https://usf.to/alenafreyscholarship.

To read more about her legacy and words from her friends and families, visit: https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/tampa-fl/alena-frey-9227967

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health