Anastasia Lyalenko, a 2014 College graduate who died two weeks ago, compared her undergraduate experience to a footrace.
“Like a runner keeping beat, I keep my eyes on the prize and never look to see who is running with me,” she wrote in a 34th Street article from March of her senior year. “But why don’t we try?”
“We’ll stretch our tired limbs and let our straining hearts relax. I’ll stop for an hour if you’ll stop with me.”
That theme — reserving time and care for others — permeated each area of Anastasia’s life, from her involvement at the LGBT Center to her professional work with in the Computational Memory Laboratory at Penn.
Nearly a year after she wrote those words, Anastasia lay in the Jefferson University Hospital intensive care unit suffering from viral myocarditis, a form of heart inflammation that disrupts the flow of blood to other essential organs.
She was admitted to the hospital in early June after feeling chest pains and her condition quickly worsened.
One by one, her supporters made cranes out of colored craft paper to brighten up Anastasia’s hospital room.
“Her friends and roommates decided to make her hospital room ‘homey’ and personal,” said Victoria Lyalenko, Anastasia’s mother.
Her roommate, 2014 Nursing graduate Kasey Benchimol, and girlfriend, 2014 College graduate Colleen Kase, went to a craft store to buy materials for a picture collage, but ended up purchasing a kit to make paper cranes. Remembering the Japanese legend that grants a wish to anyone who makes 1,000 origami cranes, Anastasia’s friends got to work.
“It was a nice way to avoid the doom and gloom, and keep the spirits uplifted,” Victoria said.
The medical staff at the hospital even got involved, helping to make cranes of their own. A week after being admitted, Anastasia suffered a stroke. Her aunt suggested setting up the Instagram hashtag #AnastasiasCranes to share information about her final days and host memories of her life.
On June 15, a Monday, Anastasia died at 11:27 p.m. with her friends, family and over 1,000 paper cranes beside her.
Artist Turned Doctor
From an early age, Anastasia Lyalenko showed considerable academic promise, but her first inclinations were more toward art than medicine.
“I kind of felt that she was probably going to go [in] some liberal arts direction,” Victoria said.
Her watercolor paintings decorated her family’s house, sometimes even staining the walls when the painting oil ran off the canvas.
“[It was as if] my house [was] covered in graffiti, but beautiful graffiti!” Victoria recalled.
In high school, Anastasia became more interested in medicine. Most of her male relatives in the Ukraine (where Anastasia was born) are doctors, and Anastasia prided herself on being the first woman physician in her family.
The tragic death of one of her classmates from an overdose also contributed to her plan to study medicine.
“At that point, Anastasia knew exactly what she was going to do,” Victoria said. “I know it shook her.”
The “star player”
At Penn, Anastasia was pre-med and majored in the biological basis of behavior. One of her teachers, Psychology Professor Michael Kahana, noticed her academic potential.
“She was an absolutely stellar, extraordinary student,” Kahana — who taught her in a class on memory — said. “Her exams defined perfection.”
Anastasia was also active at the LGBT Center as chair of the Queer Ladies at Penn group.
“Under Anastasia’s leadership, Queer Ladies grew exponentially, reaching students who had never been active at the Center before,” LGBT Center Associate Director Rebecca Schept said in a statement.
Additionally, she was an LGBT Center Mentor and member of the Queer Student Alliance.
Kase noted how Anastasia advocated for LGBTQ-affiliated women at Penn.
“There’s often a female presence lacking in LGBT life at Penn,” Kase said. The Queer Ladies group used dinners, parties and other social gatherings to provide that necessary welcome space for LGBTQ women, she added.
Kase met Anastasia in February of their junior year on the dating app, OkCupid. Their paths at Penn had not crossed before then, as Kase was involved in Greek life as a member of the Alpha Phi sorority, while Anastasia spent most of her free time with LGBT Center groups.
During her time at Penn, Anastasia chafed against the typical “work hard, play hard” atmosphere. Her 34th Street piece captured a desire to maintain friendships amid a stressful academic curriculum and challenging extracurriculars.
“She struggled with that — being a very busy, ambitious person — but also a kind person that wanted to treat people really well,” Kase said.
Anastasia graduated in May 2014 with all the trappings of a successful future: loving friends, a supportive partner and a job offer.
In the spring of 2014, Kahana was asked to spearhead a four-year, $22.5 million initiative to identify techniques for memory restoration. He immediately tapped Anastasia to be a member of his laboratory.
Working with patients who suffered from severe neurological disorders, she excelled.
“Not only was she a phenomenally talented young scientist, but she was a compassionately caring human being,” he said.
Anastasia, in the process of applying to medical school, would have had her pick of programs.
“I [asked] her to visit Harvard, Stanford and the other top programs,” Kahana said. “I know that all the tough medical schools would have been vying for her at admission time.”
She was hard-working and intensely devoted to the lab’s mission to restore memory to others.
“She was the star player on our team,” he said.
“She will be remembered”
Anastasia, even in her final days, couldn’t stop making her friends laugh.
In one of the few moments when she woke from heavy sedation, she “danced” and “flipped off her dad.”
“He pulled a stupid joke, so she flipped him off,” Kase recalled.
Her unexpected passing left a gap in the lives of those that cherished her sense of humor, rapacious intellect and kind compassion.
“Her message was, ‘There’s always someone that loves you.’ ” Victoria said.
Ironically, Anastasia — whose memory lingers among those closest to her — researched memory restoration. If anything, her patients will remember the lab assistant that worked unceasingly to restore their memory loss, Kahana said.
“In her work during one short year, she helped so many people remember,” he said.
For Colleen Kase, Anastasia’s life is a constant source of inspiration.
“She was such an important part of my life,” Kase said.
And for Victoria, who lost her daughter far too soon, Anastasia’s commitment to loving and honoring others — from her high school classmate to Colleen and her college friends — remains a source of inspiration.
“Without love, we are nothing,” Victoria said. “Anastasia took some time to show her love.”
Perhaps the greatest honor her friends and family could have done for her in her final hours was to do what she asked the Penn community to do in her 34th Street article: “relearn empathy and friendship” by stopping to speak with someone else.
So her loved ones stayed by her side — over 1,000 paper cranes among them — to grant Anastasia her final wish.Comments powered by Disqus
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