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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Lupus struggles strengthen women

Shalamar Stricklin and Angel Wright face daily difficulties with lupus, a life-changing disease.
Photo by David Reid/The Collegian

By Ashley Johnson/tr news editor
For three TR women, living with an incurable disease that many of their fellow students might not even notice, their health has been a roller coaster of confusion.

At 19 years old, TR student Angel Wright nearly lost her kidneys and suffered a terrible seizure soon after being diagnosed with lupus.
A painkiller addiction and a devastating stillborn birth followed TR student Shalamar Stricklin’s lupus diagnosis.
Shirley Gardner lost her job and was convinced by doctors that she had cancer until finally discovering that it was SLE lupus attacking her body.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus is an auto-immune disease in which the immune system attacks various organs in the body.

An estimated 1.5 million Americans, and at least 5 million people worldwide, have some form of lupus. According to Luz Hernandez from the Lupus Foundation of America, minorities have an increased risk for developing lupus, and 90 percent of people diagnosed with the disease are women.

Angel Wright
In 2010, Wright went to the doctor about seven times for what she described as “little stuff.” Her major health troubles began in January 2011 when she noticed a swelling on her bikini line.

“It hurt like hell, and it had a fever to it,” she said. “It was just throbbing, and I said, ‘I got to go to the ER’ so they could pop it because I thought it was a boil.”

It was actually a swollen lymph node that doctors surgically removed. And what Wright thought would be a simple procedure turned into a monthlong stay at the hospital and a shocking discovery about her kidneys. The doctor told Wright she would have to undergo a kidney biopsy because it was likely her kidneys were failing.

“When he told me that, I broke down. They did the biopsy, and it hurt so bad,” she said. “It came back I had renal kidney failure.”

Although the news of kidney failure sounded somewhat daunting, Wright said with renal failure, there was still a chance that her kidneys would come back. However, an underlying issue was occurring.

Wright’s body began to swell, and doctors continued to draw blood as they scrambled for answers. A rheumatologist diagnosed her with SLE lupus. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, relatives of people with lupus have a 5 to 13 percent chance of developing lupus, but in Wright’s case, none of her family members had it.

“In my mind I was thinking, ‘Am I going to die from this? Is this going to kill me?’” she said. “I was so sad, I was crying because I’m young and I have a full life ahead of me.”

Although the diagnosis explained why her kidneys were failing, Angel was soon put on dialysis and gained more than 40 pounds of water weight.

“They had to put a port in my neck, and that was for the dialysis. I went for two weeks, and dialysis is horrible,” she said. “You’re freezing cold. I had literally 10 blankets on me, and I was just shivering because I was so cold.”

Doctors checked her kidneys every day, but they were still in advanced failure. Nevertheless, she kept her faith and looked to her family for support.

After about two weeks on dialysis, the creatine levels in Wright’s kidneys slowly increased each day. By late February, her creatine levels were normal, and her kidneys miraculously began working again.

“That was the most joyous moment. I cried,” she said. “I said ‘Oh my god, I’m going to make it through.’”

After a month of tumultuous health issues, Angel was released from the hospital. Her freedom was short-lived because the next day she suffered a seizure in her sleep and ended up in the hospital.

“I woke up, had two IVs in my arm, my face was big and I couldn’t talk. I was like ‘What am I doing here?’” she said.

Wright stayed in the hospital for another two weeks and was sent home once again, this time for good.

“A month later, I was skinny, feeling sexy and I had to throw away all my old clothes. I started working a month after that, and I went back to school in August 2011.”

To slow down the process of the lupus, Angel takes five pills a day and sometimes steroids. Now healthy enough to live a normal life, she is happy to have her life back.

“Everybody tells me, ‘Girl, you look good,’” she said. “I’m like my old self again. I can walk in heels again.”

Wright is currently pursuing a degree in nursing although her condition might impede her from some necessary duties. She believes she can do anything after getting through lupus, and it’s her faith that motivates her to persevere.

“I might not be able to lift the patients, but my heart is set on nursing,” she said. “My faith is what got me through, and I don’t regret going through it because it made me stronger as a person.”

Shalamar Stricklin
Many students would find catching two buses and walking seven blocks to school in the Texas heat an exhausting task.

For Stricklin, this describes a typical trip to TR Campus last summer because, like Wright, she suffers from SLE lupus.

The disease causes chronic fatigue, and ultraviolet rays from the sun can worsen the effects of lupus, Hernandez said.

“When we say chronic fatigue, we mean it’s difficult for you to even get out of bed,” she said. “You may not even make it to your car, let alone getting on a bus.”

So just how did Stricklin manage to champion through 100-degree weather to make it to school everyday? She said school was her motivation.

“I’m not a disabled person. I’m a person with a disability,” she said. “The difference between a disabled person and a person with disability is I don’t let my disability hold me back.”

Stricklin was diagnosed with lupus in October 2006 after a series of doctor visits.

“I was only 19 years old, and I felt like the world had ended because I already knew how horrible the disease was,” she said.

Lupus goes from mild to severe, and there’s no way of knowing what will happen, Hernandez said.

“Severe means it attacks your organs,” she said.  “It’s very unpredictable. For some people, it doesn’t attack their organs at all. For others, it attacks all of your organs. It can basically cause your organs to shut down.”

Like Wright, the disease attacked Stricklin’s kidneys and caused a number of other health problems.

“By the time the doctors figured out it was lupus, I already had arthritis, anemia and stage 3 kidney disease,” she said. “I was leaking blood, and pretty soon, I had to get dismissed from school.”

Stricklin spent weeks in the hospital after her diagnosis because her family could not afford the cocktail of medications she was prescribed to keep her lupus from flaring up.

To keep the lupus at bay, patients generally have to take medicine for the rest of their lives, Hernandez said.

Unfortunately, Stricklin’s medication had adverse effects on her body.

“Due to the medication, I lost a lot of my hair,” she said. “It was horrible. There are no words to describe. I just felt so insignificant.”

Her diagnosis began to affect her mentally, and she became dependent on the pain medication.

“One of the prescriptions I was given was morphine, and at the time, I had no idea how much that was affecting me,” she said. “I turned to things like drugs, alcohol and partying. I had a chip on my shoulder, and I was mad at the world.”

After reconnecting with an aunt, she moved to Texas to live with her. However, what was supposed to be an exciting new beginning turned into the lowest point of her struggle with lupus.

“I had been in a relationship, and in August 2008, right after my 21st birthday, I found out I was pregnant, and I was extremely happy,” she said.  “Around December, I went in for a regular appointment, and there was no heartbeat.”

Stricklin said doctors had warned about the extreme health risk that pregnancy is for a person with lupus, but she didn’t suspect she would lose her child.

“It was my first child, and I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was rushed to the hospital immediately after to take the baby out, and it was really painful to see the baby. I felt extremely guilty, and, to this day, I still feel guilty for that.”

After her loss, Stricklin worried about her future and wanted to get her life on track.

“When I turned 23, I realized I hadn’t gone anywhere,” she said. “Both of my parents came and visited me, and my mom helped me find a church.”

Stricklin began regularly attending church, and in the summer of 2010, she took a job there as a nursery provider and was able to save money to start TCC in May 2011. Last fall, Stricklin took a full courseload and ended with a 3.7 GPA and a much better outlook on life.
“That was really like light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “There are plenty of days when I’m not feeling it, and I want to give up. God wakes me up every morning, and I know that’s keeping me going.”

When first diagnosed, Stricklin thought she couldn’t do anything. Now she wants to continue her education and eventually work with nonprofit organizations, and she knows that’s possible. Despite her battles with lupus, Stricklin is finishing up her spring semester at TCC and is expecting another child.

“I’m five months pregnant, and it’s a boy. Having an active lifestyle keeps me balanced,” she said.

Stricklin believes she handled her illness well and did not let it stop her.

“I’m very happy to be alive,” she said. “I’m proud of myself for getting where I’m at, and I thank God for it.”

Shirley Gardner
One morning in June 2007, Gardner woke up to a 104-degree fever and aching bones and thought she needed more rest.

“I went to work, but I know I wasn’t moving the way I normally do,” she said. “Everything was at a slow pace, and I didn’t know what it was.”

Because of the fever, she went to the emergency room. After many tests, doctors discovered she had fluid in her lungs but couldn’t determine why.

After several blood transfusions, doctors tried to convince Gardner she might have leukemia.

“I didn’t really feel like I had any cancer,” she said. “They were trying to send me to MD Anderson, which is a cancer hospital in Houston, Texas. I told them I didn’t want to go.”

Gardner was released from the hospital two weeks later but remained off work for three months to receive IV treatments.

She returned to work feeling better and thinking her health was back to normal.

“My vital signs were wonderful,” she said. “I wasn’t on any kind of medication at all but vitamins and iron pills.”

One month later, her health returned to its troubled condition causing numerous doctor visits.

“Every day that I got up, I felt different,” she said. “I felt something is wrong with me.”

After taking so much time off work, Gardner had to go into her 401K to pay bills. She thinks stress probably caused her next hospital visit, which revealed her lungs were filling up with fluid and her kidneys and liver were  being attacked.

Her condition baffled doctors for five months. Then Gardner started swelling and experiencing more fatigue. All her symptoms had worsened, and she ended up in the hospital for her last and longest stay.

“Pulling the covers up was even a task,” she said. “I would be completely out of breath. I did a whole lot of fluid weight gain. I thought they were getting ready to put me in the ICU, and it was all over.”

Doctors noticed her blood oxygen levels decreasing and finally diagnosed her with SLE lupus. She was given steroids and released home with a miniature IV bag. Unlike Wright and Stricklin, Gardner was diagnosed with lupus in her late 30s, which illustrates the disease’s unpredictable nature.

“I had heard of it before, but I just thought it was some disease. As long as it’s not in my family history, I’m OK,” she said. “When I did the history, my great-great grandmother had it, and it had been passing through generations until it came to me.”

Although Gardner lost her job because of lengthy hospital stays, she realized how many people she helped while there. She believes getting sick helped her find meaning for her life and now plans to be a social worker.

“That showed me in the midst of what I’m going through, there’s always somebody going through something worse,” she said. “Before I was just going from job to job. Now, I’m happier because I found what my purpose is. And I found what my purpose was when I became ill.”

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