Life wasn’t always a day-to-day health challenge for Linda Garrett. In fact, it was once pretty darn normal for this Colorado transplant from Wisconsin. If anything, this lady lived a large life. That is, before she was diagnosed with lupus.
Linda grew up in a tight-knit family in the small community of Mount Horeb in southern Wisconsin. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UW-Eau Claire, her independence and sense of adventure led her to Florida where she became a self-proclaimed beach bum during her early professional years. She later traveled to Albuquerque to attend the University of New Mexico, where she was awarded a master’s degree in organizational communication.
“I had a great time in my 20s and early 30s,” Garrett says. “I was living the kind of life young people dream of living. I had a good job, and I lived steps from the beach where I spent as much of my free time as possible. In retrospect, I have no doubt that the sun contributed to some of my health issues later on, but I don’t regret one single moment.”
She eventually found her way to Colorado where she has lived for 28 years. The active lifestyle was suited for Linda, whose love of physical activity took her on adventure destinations around the world. This passion also led her to a scuba diving instructor named Jimmy, who would later become her husband.
In October of 2002, Linda and Jimmy signed on for an adventure excursion to Fiji. Little did they know this trip would be the start of monumental life changes for each of them, as well as their family and friends.
On a technical climb during a nature walk, Linda lost her footing and plummeted 30 feet. With the help of fellow hikers, she was carried out of the jungle and put on a boat for a 50-minute ride back to the island where they were staying. She was x-rayed and diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder.
Upon their return to Colorado, Linda sought a second opinion and got an answer she wasn’t prepared to hear. She had broken her back in seven places. What followed was not only a long and grueling stretch of recovery and rehabilitation, but the beginning of new symptoms eventually leading to a lupus diagnosis.
“Trauma can trigger lupus. Breaking my back was very traumatic; not just the physical side of it, but the mental and emotional side of being in another country and unable to get the type of medical care I was accustomed to.”
The silver lining of the injury was the realization that life is short and not to be taken for granted. On New Year’s Eve 2002, just two short months after Linda’s fall in Fiji, Jimmy proposed and Linda accepted.
With plans to marry in April, Jimmy left for a previously-planned scuba diving trip to Thailand. It was during this trip that Linda’s life took on a dramatically different version of normal. She became ill, was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with systemic lupus eurthymosis. Linda was referred to the Denver Arthritis Clinic, where she would begin the mentally, physically and emotionally painful process of learning about lupus and how it would change her life.
“I knew nothing about lupus. I don’t think I had ever even heard the word lupus, but I was fortunate enough to get an incredible doctor, Katherine Hobbs. She has been with me from day one. She’s been a gift; very proactive and always nurturing. She never gives up. We’ve been through the gamut together.”
With Jimmy out of the country around the time of the diagnosis, Linda relied heavily on the support of her sister, Diane. Roommates for 15 years, the women were not only sisters, but best friends.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for Diane. She has been there for me through thick and thin. She has been a caregiver and an advocate. When I was diagnosed with lupus, I was already on disability from my back injury. The lupus was completely debilitating at the time. I don’t believe I would have survived if not for Diane.”
Jimmy’s return home from Thailand added another component to Linda’s growing support system. Together, they dived into this new normal, this living with lupus. They married in April and bought their first house together that August.
As if a diagnosis and learning to live with a chronic disease wasn’t enough, Linda’s father passed away that September.
“Virtually everything in my life changed in so many ways and on so many levels in such a short amount of time. We dealt with lots of grief during that span. A huge learning curve for me was realizing that trying to do everything I used to do, trying to live my life as I once did, was just not possible. I had to accept my new normal.”
Part of the challenge for Linda, Jimmy and for their family has been learning to understand the ups and downs, the constant changes in health, the flares and, simply, the challenges of living a life so completely different from the one pre-lupus.
Add to that a breast-cancer diagnosis in 2010, followed by a double mastectomy and months of chemotherapy. The silver lining of the cancer diagnosis was that the chemo resulted in a year of remission from her lupus symptoms.
Lupus. Breast cancer. How could she face this challenge? For Linda, the answer is through the help of her strong legend of supporters.
“Jimmy is the most incredible husband I could ever dream of marrying. He is so good, caring and kind, and his love has never wavered. Then there is my family. My childhood was filled with unconditional love and support from my parents and siblings. Through the years, we added in-laws, nieces and nephews and a bonus daughter. Add to that my lifetime best friend I met in Florida nearly 40 years ago. I have been blessed to be surrounded by so much love and support my entire life. It has sustained and nurtured me in good times and in bad. I’m luckier than most.”
Linda is also fortunate to work for a very supportive company with excellent benefits, providing her with resources to afford her medications, monthly infusions and hospital stays.
“Lupus is degenerative and progressive and that part is out of my control. I just try to live my best life every single day. Period.”
Linda was nominated to the Lupus Colorado Board of Directors in 2015. She plans to use her position as a vehicle for advocacy and support for lupus patients across the state. There is no doubt she is a perfect person to impact fellow Coloradans living with lupus.