In 2004, Shanelle Gabriel was a student at Utica College in New York when she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, as she could have, she used the illness as a motivation to follow her dreams.
Today, Gabriel, 31, of Brooklyn, is a recording artist and spoken word poet who travels the world performing before mostly college audiences.
“I always give the facts about lupus,” Gabriel told me in a recent phone interview. “No one’s going to leave without hearing what lupus is.”
Next month, Gabriel will bring her story to Charlotte at the annual N.C. Lupus Summit on Oct. 24.
She’ll tell the story of how she started having trouble getting out of bed. Her joints hurt. Her wrist was swollen. One day, when she tried to donate blood, she was told she couldn’t because she was anemic. But when she visited the student medical center, a doctor found nothing else wrong.
A year later, in 2004, when she was combing her hair, Gabriel noticed two large bald patches on the top of her head. She had ignored other symptoms, such as poor circulation in her fingers and toes, but the hair loss moved her to visit a doctor the next day. New tests and a review of her symptoms resulted in the diagnosis of lupus.
After getting over the initial shock, she said she asked herself what she wanted from life. “I love singing. I love music,” she said. “So I just decided I’m gonna put my whole heart into it.”
She recorded her first album, “Start Something,” in 2007 and now spends about 12 weeks a year on the road, singing, performing poetry, leading creative writing workshops and promoting lupus awareness. She has appeared on the Def Poetry Jam on HBO and at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Gabriel also wrote a poem, “Vanity,” about her diagnosis. By that time, she had been able to quit her job as an office administrator to perform full time. “I was thinking about how awesome it was that I was on the road, a touring artist,” she said. And she decided to share her diagnosis with her audiences.
“Lupus can’t hold me,” she wrote. “… I’m reaching my goals/ no matter how hard it seems/ … It’s not cool to be conceited/ but nothing’s wrong with a li’l vanity/ cause me loving myself/ well, that’s the beginning of my testimony.”
When she performed the poem for the first time, she was nervous but then pleasantly surprised by the reaction. “A bunch of people came up to me and said, ‘I have lupus too. I thought I was alone.’ It made me really want to speak about this.”
Having lupus made me (realize) I have to live each day as if it might be my last.
Shanelle Gabriel, poet, singer and lupus survivor
Because people with lupus don’t necessarily look sick, friends and loved ones don’t always understand. She said her mother thought she just needed rest. “No one in my family has ever had a chronic illness. It took awhile for them to come to grips.”
The cause of lupus is unknown and there is no cure. Research suggests genes play a role, but it is likely that many factors trigger the disease. Symptoms vary with individuals and they also come and go. Treatments include drugs to prevent “flares,” reduce swelling and pain, reduce or prevent joint and organ damage and help the immune system.
Gabriel takes several medicines to control her symptoms. She tells her audiences that 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with lupus every year, and women are three times more likely to be affected than men. She has been hospitalized with complications several times. Once she had two blood clots in her lungs. “I woke up and couldn’t breathe. They rushed me to the ER. They said ‘You could have died.’ ”
Gabriel said it’s appropriate that the theme of the Charlotte conference is “Aim High.”
“If I didn’t have lupus, I wouldn’t have worked so hard,” she said. “Having lupus made me (realize) I have to live each day as if it might be my last. I don’t want to have regrets. I want to try to live a very passionate and intentional life.”
N.C. Lupus Summit
9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Sheraton Charlotte Airport Hotel, 3315 Scott Futrell Drive.
Sponsored by the Lupus Foundation of America, North Carolina Chapter.
Register by Oct. 16. Cost: $20.