Larry LaRue

A walk for lupus? Try leaping out of an airplane

Valinda Mitchell hid her suffering so well that for years even good friends thought her pain was caused by arthritis.

It wasn’t. She had systemic lupus erythematosus.

Mitchell, a mother of four, had a secret that ended in 2003 when her disease flared, her lungs began hemorrhaging and her doctors ran out of options.

“Six of them came in, one at a time, and told me there was nothing more they could do,” Mitchell said. “That made me mad. My kids were still little. I had things to do.”

When her lungs were failing, doctors put her in an induced coma, then told her husband, John, to begin making funeral arrangements.

Mitchell had those things to do, though. She awoke from the coma, survived 15 months of daily chemotherapy and then said “enough.”

Now 48, the Lacey woman still deals with the effects of lupus and its treatment. But since 2004, she’s taken a defiant posture against the disease.

She jumps out of airplanes to fight it.

Mitchell had been a skydiver since high school, when friends talked her into going one day and the instructor was — ahem — the man she would marry.

“My husband and I formed the Leap for Lupus Foundation and looked for researchers we could give money to, and Dr. Keith Elkon at the University of Washington was the recipient,” Mitchell said.

The Mitchells and friends have been leaping out of airplanes once a year ever since. The number of friends grows each year, as does the foundation’s support.

“We have a huge fundraising dinner and raffle, and for $500 you can jump,” Mitchell said.

Among those who have leaped for lupus since 2010 is Alonna Fillips, a 33-year-old Spanaway woman diagnosed with the disease at age 12.

“It was a tough thing to deal with at that age because the steroids they gave me made me gain weight and get acne, and the chemotherapy made my hair fall out,” Fillips said.

“I just randomly Googled ‘lupus events’ one day and found the organization. Each of the last four years, I’ve jumped.”

What’s it like?

“Amazing! My husband, Ryan, said when I jumped my eyes rolled back in my head, but once I was out it was like forgetting about everything,” Fillips said. “I loved it.”

And paid for it with more than $500.

“Lupus can be managed, but you have to know your body,” she said. “Stress makes it worse, and sometimes doing something one day means paying for it for a week.

“Last year, I jumped and was in bed for a week.”

Fillips said the disease has cycled through her life.

“I’ll have two or three bad years, then maybe two good years,” she said. “I’ve been in remission since last August. A good year doesn’t mean you don’t have bad days.”

Both Fillips and Mitchell get through those bad days as best they can, fighting joint pain that can make any movement agonizing.

“When I wake up in pain, I know I have to take it easy and whatever may have been planned might not happen,” Fillips said. “My friends know that, and my husband has gotten good at saying ‘We’re not coming over after all.’

“I try to avoid stress because that’s so important to my health. In the past, I couldn’t go to bed until the house was clean. Now, if there are dishes in the sink but I can go to bed without pain, I’m good.”

The two women have been friends since 2010, though Fillips said Mitchell is more than that. “She’s like a sister, and a motherly role model.”

Mitchell won’t be jumping this year; she’s recovering from a hip replacement made necessary by lupus.

“There are always a lot of supporters on the ground, and a few people who jump with me,” Fillips said. “It’s hard talking people into jumping out of an airplane with you.

“But everyone has a walk for this or that. In the last four years, with family and friends, we’ve probably raised $10,000 for the foundation.”