19-year-old Heather Martin was just finishing another semester at college in May 1998 when she came down with a virus that she couldn’t shake. Exhausted and completely wiped out after studying, Heather couldn’t regain the energy she expended preparing for her final exams. When she arrived home for summer break, her family assumed that Heather’s fatigue and virus were related to the stress she was experiencing at college. She had always slept late on weekends and so her need to rest after finishing her spring semester didn’t surprise anyone. But tragedy struck, and Heather was dead within two months because the doctors she visited didn’t realize that the virus she was suffering from was caused by a deeper, underlying illness: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.
When her symptoms quickly grew much worse rather than improving with rest, Heather went to see a doctor. But, the doctor couldn’t explain her sickness. Heather and her family visited six doctors before she received a diagnosis and received treatment. But it was too late, Heather, just months before a healthy, vibrant college student, who, ‘had never been sick a day in her life,’ died that July, only two months after she experienced the symptoms of the disease that killed her.
According to her sister, actress Kellie Martin, of ER fame, the doctors that Heather saw weren’t aware of the symptoms of lupus, the autoimmune disease which took Heather’s life. ‘Heather had the classic textbook case of lupus. Once we started to read about it, we thought, ‘I could have diagnosed it.’ But she saw seven different doctors who had no idea.’
The death of her sister shook Kellie, and it inspired her to fight back against the disease that killed her sister. She made it her mission to warn the world of the signs and symptoms of this sometimes fatal illness. She became the spokesperson for the American Autoimmune Related Disease Associate (AARDA) in an attempt to use her fame, and her popular association with the medical community via her role on ER, to spread the word and help save the lives of others
An Elusive Illness
Although her family didn’t realize it, Heather fit the profile for victims of autoimmune diseases; the majority of victims, approximately 75-90%, are women, often of childbearing age. According to the AARDA, researchers have been unable to discover why women make up the majority of the cases.
The body’s immune system normally protects itself from germs, but sometimes it can turn against itself. The result is autoimmune disease, which can manifest itself in many ways. The immune system mistakenly deems elements of the body as foreign, and attacks them. According to the AARDA, autoimmunity is the root cause of more than 80 serious illnesses, some deadly, and all chronic, including scleroderma, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and lupus.
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