Brittney Mcbath, Florida, and Ewodaghe (Ewo) Harrell, Union, have a lot in common. They both live in Florida, both pledged Tri Delta and both are volunteers for the Lupus Foundation of America. They both also have lupus, a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disorder that occurs when a person’s immune system attacks their own tissues and organs.
Lupus has left both Brittney and Ewo hospitalized multiple times, and today the Tri Delta sisters are working together to raise awareness about the disease.
Brittney began experiencing symptoms when she was just 17. The athletic high school student started suffering from extreme fatigue and swollen joints. Her hair was falling out. She was pale, and her fingers would turn blue. It took a year of doctor’s visits before she was diagnosed with lupus. “When I was finally diagnosed, it was a relief and an overwhelming burden all at once,” remembers Brittney. “I broke down and cried because even though I knew I could have a long life, I knew that it was changed forever.”
At first, Brittney was hesitant to share her diagnosis even with close friends. As she began the premedical track at the University of Florida, she refused to let her illness get in the way of her dream of becoming a doctor. When she joined Tri Delta, few knew of her disease.
It wasn’t until a retreat that Brittney told her Tri Delta sisters. The announcement was met with tears and hugs, and Brittney found nothing but support. Brittney’s Alpha Psi sisters always checked in on her and made sure she was ok; if she was too sick to attend class, they would share their notes.
During college, Brittney faced multiple hospitalizations, but she continued to focus on her education. “After college, I started a new chapter of my life — medical school,” she says. “I thought that I could push through just like I did in college with good days and bad days.” But Brittney was wrong. Nearly a year into medical school, she was forced on medical leave after she collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room.
After moving back home, Brittney realized she needed to put her health first. She had been ignoring new symptoms: she could no longer feel the tips of her toes, her memory was becoming foggy, and none of her medications were helping.
Brittney’s father, a doctor himself, began trying to locate other doctors in the country who could treat his daughter. Eventually, the McBaths reached out to a former Lupus Foundation of America board member who put them in contact directly with the Lupus Foundation of America President and CEO, Sandra Raymond.
Sandra recommended Dr. Susan Manzi whose vast knowledge and curiosity about Brittney’s drug resistance led her to run a number of blood tests. She was the first doctor to consider that Brittney might have another disease in addition to lupus, and she diagnosed her with angioedema.
“For the first time in years, I felt hope,” says Brittney. “Hope that I would have a long life. Hope that I could regain control of my life. Hope that I wouldn’t feel bad every day. The Lupus Foundation of America made this connection for me.”
And for the first time since her diagnosis, Brittney finally had the time and energy to dedicate to making a difference. After connecting with the Lupus Foundation of America, she signed up for the Walk to End Lupus Now in Tampa, Florida. It was through her volunteer efforts with the Walk that she met a Tri Delta sister facing a similar battle.
Like Brittney, Ewo’s illness disrupted her education and post-graduate plans. And she too was inspired to make a difference for others suffering from the same disease.
Ewo was diagnosed with lupus at age 20 while she was studying Chinese and political science at Union College. She began experiencing symptoms during the fall term while she was studying abroad in China. After returning home, she divided her time between hospital rooms and classrooms while physicians and specialists tried to figure out what was wrong.
Ewo, always upbeat and positive, never let her mystery illness get her down. She continued to focus on school, but it became increasingly difficult. Just one week into the summer, she found she couldn’t walk. Her father — much like Brittney’s — was determined to find out what was wrong with his daughter. He rushed her to the hospital, and after eight days of tests and exams, Ewo was finally diagnosed with lupus.
She spent the summer recuperating, eager to return to school. Back at Union, Ewo found support on campus in the form of Tri Delta after going through recruitment during her junior year.
“During the recruitment process, I was still processing my diagnosis with a chronic, life-threatening illness,” she says. “Many of the [potential new members] did not know I was suffering; I did not want my illness to define me. Once I was initiated as a sister of Beta Psi Chapter, I began opening up to the sisters I got to know through recruitment. They were all immediately supportive and are now among some of my dearest friends.”
After graduation, Ewo moved to Paris to gain additional experience abroad. One night, the lower half of her body began swelling. She made an appointment with the doctor for later that week, but ended up in the emergency room. Unbeknownst to Ewo, she had developed kidney disease in addition to lupus, and her kidneys were failing.
A full system failure followed, and Ewo fell into a coma for two weeks. When she finally woke up, she found an outpouring of love from her Tri Delta sisters a continent away — there were flowers, cards, Facebook messages and emails. “They wanted me to know how steadfastly we loved one another,” Ewo says. Her new member class even raised money for the Lupus Foundation of America and donated it on her behalf.
Instead of accepting a fellowship to work for the JUMP! Foundation in Beijing for two years, Ewo returned home to Florida where she began dialysis. Then, in July 2013, she received a living-donor transplant from her younger sister. Ewo, whose hobby has always been giving back, decided she wanted to help others like her; she began volunteering with the National Kidney Foundation and the Lupus Foundation of America.
A Similar Cause and a Similar Battle
The Walk to End Lupus Now in Tampa, Florida, takes place every year in May which is Lupus Awareness Month. Ewo was working on the fundraising committee for the Walk when Brittney became involved by starting her own team. When Brittney attended a pre-Walk dinner, she spoke to a woman at her table who was also in a sorority. Brittney mentioned being a Tri Delta, and the two chatted about Greek life.
When the same woman attended a different event with Ewo, she told Ewo that she had met another Tri Delta. Ewo remembers her saying: “‘I met this girl, she’s so nice and she reminds me of you.’” Ewo found Brittney on Facebook and sent her a message.
The two began corresponding and clicked right away. They first met in person at a committee dinner for team captains. “We had already known that we were both Tri Deltas and felt our perpetual bond immediately,” says Ewo.
Because they were both participating in the Walk to End Lupus Now in Tampa, they planned to have their team tents side by side. On the day of the Walk, they met again. “I saw her, and I ran up to her and gave her a hug,” Brittney recalls.
Both of the women’s collegiate chapters also got involved in the cause. Although Ewo only personally knew one current member in the chapter, all the sisters had heard her story and wanted to help spread awareness about lupus. The women of Beta Psi created their own purple shirts, tabled on the Union campus during May and donated to the Walk.
Today, Brittney and Ewo work together on the Lupus Foundation’s national committee for youth outreach, as they continue to spread awareness about the disease that has affected both of their lives.
“We had so much in common as far as our spirit and not letting our health get us down,” says Ewo. “We came together for a similar cause and a similar battle.”
If you or someone you know has lupus, or you’re interested in supporting the Lupus Foundation of America, you can contact Brittney at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ewo at email@example.com.