Spotlight Story Program: Meet Jasmine Chen

Perseverance, energy, adaptability, joy and wisdom. These are all traits we try to supply to all our young adults in the InvisiYouth community, and all perfect descriptors of our newest Spotlight Story Program feature writer, Jasmine Chen. From New Jersey, Jasmine is not your average 28 year old because she’s also a double lung transplant warrior after dealing with RSV. Her chronic illnesses have given her the life experiences to look at the world with such an empathetic and passionate lens. With her eagerness to improve her daily life, Jasmine has advocated not only for her physical health, but also her mental health, empowering others in the benefits of therapy too. We are so excited for you to read Jasmine’s story, and learn her five life lessons that you can easily apply in your daily life too.

My name is Jasmine, I am 28 years old from New Jersey and in July, I will be two years post- double lung transplant. Despite all the challenges of the past two years (and a pandemic to top it off), it was the best decision I ever made, and managing this condition constantly reminds me of what really matters in life:  family, friends, and finding purpose.

Every year, my birthday would come around, and every year, I would blow on my candles and wish for the same thing: to have healthy lungs.  My chronic health journey began when I was three: a doctor’s visit turned into a hospitalization of six weeks; while under the hospital’s care and observation for pneumonia, I caught RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). As a young child, I was much more vulnerable to the virus, and the RSV ravaged through my lungs in a short period of time.  Even though I won the battle, the aftermath of permanently scarred lungs turned into an ongoing war.  I was a confusing and rare case, and the doctors tentatively diagnosed me with Bronchiolitis Obliterans.

When I entered my double-digit years, I graduated from oxygen dependency around the clock, and began physically attending school part-time.  Managing a depleted lung function on top of asthma and a defenseless immune system, my head was always calculating ways to save energy, maximize efficiency, and survive: I would gauge whether the energy spent trekking to my locker outweighed the expense of carrying around a heavy textbook.  My normal speed was a slower pace than the average student and I didn’t tend to have the breath to converse, and so I found myself walking alone a lot.

College made it more apparent that invisible illness was both a blessing and a curse.  Being able to blend in with the crowd around campus helped because it did not garner any unwanted attention.  On the other hand, I found myself often struggling to convince professors, friends, and people in general that I had a disability. A lack of visible proof resulted in many occasions where ignorance fed into a gaslighting culture and my imposter syndrome constantly minimized my suffering.

Dealing with society’s ignorance and treatment of my disability is on par, if not arguably worse, then managing the health struggles itself. 

For example, there were times I had to choose between my health and grades when a college professor refused to allow me to miss the final exam when I was ill.  There was the time HR called me in because an anonymous coworker reported me for “abusing” my handicap spot. Did I feel anger, resentment, and frustration when these situations happened?  Absolutely. Accepting that these things will happen and learning not to get stuck in it is a lifelong challenge.

Here are some of the things I would tell my younger self if I could:

#1: Learn to self-advocate. Over time, I learned to make my thoughts and concerns louder, whether that was dealing with coworkers, nurses and doctors, or insurance.  I used to believe the right way to be humble was by obediently following directions, and trusting those in charge, but eventually I realized it was important to be assertive and vocal while also doing your own research and thinking for yourself: it is possible to both retain humility and make your voice heard.

#2: Be gentle with yourself. You are more resilient than you think. People with chronic illnesses tend to experience the best and worst of life. Sometimes life throws curveballs at you, and many things are simply out of your control.  You will meet some unfriendly people, face complicated health issues, and have bad days. But you will also meet some amazing human beings, overcome those challenges, and have great days.

#3: Do not be afraid to seek help. Therapy is a lot like dating: when you meet the right one, it can be cathartic and life-changing. I built up the courage to overcome the stigma of therapy and sorted through several therapists before I found the right one. I began therapy during a dark period in college where I felt isolated, lost, and seriously wondered what the point of carrying on was. These sessions not only helped me navigate through the mental roller coaster of pre- and post- lung transplant, but also forced me to confront my own self-doubts and fears, ultimately empowering me to find and create the life I envision for myself (this will always be a work-in-progress).

#4: They are not a reflection of your self-worth. The level of your academics, the number of friends you have, and the experiences you may be deprived of are not your fault. You will meet various unique hurdles in life, whether they be people or circumstances. The amount of classes I missed, especially during the winter, was reflected in my grades.  There were friendships that died instantly or faded over time, whether they be because of betrayal, rejection, ignorance, or isolation.

Over time, this perpetuated a greater reluctance to disclose my health condition, for fear people would keep their distance once they knew.  But none of these difficult relationships or experiences define who you are or what your value is as a human being.

#5: You are the author, director, and CEO of your own identity. “She doesn’t like to mix negative and positive energy…”  This is a quote from one of my favorite movies, 50/50 (one of the few realistic movies that does not feed into an “inspiration porn” portrayal of illness).  Adam explains to his friend Kyle that his girlfriend has trouble dealing with the fact that he has cancer and refuses to mix her normal, able-bodied lifestyle (“positive energy”) with the “negative energy” of the hospital, which was a culmination of Adam’s illness and pain. For the longest time, I avoided using my handicap sign because I denied that I needed it.

I wanted one insignificant part of my life roaming the parking lots to be separate from my chronic illness life: instead, I gave myself the unnecessary burden of trying to live two identities.  But the truth is, I don’t have to choose between me who is ill and the parts of me that aren’t.  I am both.  I am just me: You are the only one who gets to define who you are. 

After some post-transplant complications, today I am at roughly 75% lung function as opposed to 16%.  I take a plethora of pills on a daily schedule, I get my blood drawn regularly, I converse frequently with my doctors and undergo whatever procedures are required, I have “moon-face” from steroids- occasionally, I argue with insurance.

But I am reborn in some sense, experiencing everything with new lungs and lung capacity I never had before.  I’ve learned to meditate and savor moments like when I’m safely at home, appreciating the silence and the privacy of my room- things I do not have when hospitalized.

Everything I’ve gone through has grown greater my empathy: I see the hidden pain in others’ eyes because I recognize it so clearly in my own.”- Melinda Means.

My first time hiking up three miles, first time walking up and down the stairs more than twice a day, and more recently, the first time dancing for a couple hours at one of my best friend’s weddings. Looking forward to many more first times.

 

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Isabella McCray

Letting go of the illusion, and fully embracing the life you’re living now. That’s a prime mindset InvisiYouth advocates through its programs, and it’s a focal point of our latest Spotlight Story Program feature writer’s daily life. Say hello to the American stellar teen, Isabella McCray, who has not only celebrated a high school AND Associates degree graduation this month, but uses her platform to raise awareness of the chronic illness she lives with, Lupus. This autoimmune disease is life-altering, and since her pre-teens into her later teen years Isabella has needed to balance her health changes with her life changes. Isabella’s journey with Lupus shares her vulnerable strength and how her reclaimed her bravery through her flare-ups, even embracing the pains to live life at its fullest. Now with eyes set on being a pediatric nurse, Isabella is allowing her voice to encourage community connectivity and support, while sharing what it’s like living and managing Lupus. And with May being Lupus Awareness Month, we knew having Isabella share her story would educate and empower many other teens in the Lupus and autoimmune disease community! 

Hi, my name is Isabella McCray and I am a chronic illness and Lupus advocate, inspiring and encouraging young adults like me! I use my platform to talk about all things chronic illness and spread the word about what it’s like living and managing Lupus.

When I was little, I went to preschool and my teacher used to always rub and massage my legs because my legs were always sore. Eventually, it became difficult to run and play, to climb stairs, and if I had exposure to sunlight/heat, I would break out in hives.

I went to my pediatrician and she diagnosed me with growing pains.

Fast forward 2014, I saw visibly swollen glands and I visited my pediatrician again and she referred me to an ENT doctor. He discovered in my blood some abnormalities and referred me to my present pediatric rheumatologist. He ordered various blood tests and on my next visit with him, I was diagnosed with Lupus SLE.

I recall searching what it was and reading about the symptoms. I experienced each of them. Joint pain, headaches, fatigue, butterfly rash, hair loss, etc. I was just 11 when I was diagnosed with Lupus. I was a young child and I didn’t know how to feel or how to accept my diagnosis. I also didn’t know that my life would change forever.

In the years following, I learned to managed my chronic illness; that had no cure. My classmates didn’t know because I didn’t want them to view me differently. However, it was the year 2017  when my journey crossed and I discovered new bravery for every aspect of my life. I had my first flare-up; I was home-bound from school for 5 months, and the most time I was admitted in the hospital being 2 weeks. I had to tell my peers about my condition because of my absences. It was at that point that I was at my lowest.

I didn’t have the bravery I held when I was little. I was in unbearable pain and I was hopeless of things getting better. I started losing my hair, which was 14 inches long and my appearance changed. I consulted with a chronic illness hairstylist, who specialized in haircuts for Lupus patients. I had dreadlocks since I was 4 years old and getting them cut, I felt like I lost one of the most important parts of what made me.

In light of my insecurities and challenges, I decided to cut my hair.  I immediately made adjustments to my schedule and my classifications with my peers.

This did not sit well with some and I was subjected to bullying. I experienced emotional, physical, and mental pain but I never gave up. It wasn’t that giving up was an option because it was.

However, I didn’t let the pain and suffering I endured break me. Instead, I started embracing the pain and turning it into strength and inspiration.

Experiencing a life-changing illness that changes your outlook on everything is stressful and overwhelming. That is why I use my voice to bring awareness to chronic illnesses and inspire others in this community to hold on and if you feel like giving up, you have a whole community to back you up.

Despite our limitations, we can develop patience and discover hope in the worst of situations. Because battling a life-altering illness is a tough journey and changing directions in life is not a bad decision. It just allows you to change your story and experience the high and lows with an amazing support system on social media.

Being part of a community so empowering and influential, and it encouraged me to share my voice and interact with others. I have grown and matured to know my worth and who I am, personally. I am compassionate, caring, sweet, understanding, and forgiving! I experienced so many things in my childhood that I should’ve experienced now being a young adult. I was such a private person growing up, but making my diagnoses public was one of the best decisions I made.

I had to face unknown experiences, having hope and strength and the mindset of coming out of these experiences even stronger. I became an advocate and not only for chronic illnesses, but also for my education as well.

I am currently a senior in high school, graduating with my high school diploma and Associates of Arts degree. Being afforded the opportunity of encountering many doctors and nurses on my various visits to the hospital inspired me to pursue and further my education in nursing to hopefully become a pediatric nurse.

During a visit with my specialist, my mom saw a pamphlet about Make-A-Wish Foundation. She reached out and contacted them about my journey and how far I’ve come and they wanted to have a meeting with my mom and I. Personally, whatever my wish was, I wanted to bring awareness to Lupus.  My Wish was to meet the cast of Good Morning America. Robin Roberts is an inspiring role model who I still admire today. My wish was granted, after several months, and it was an experience I will never forget!

Throughout my journey, I learned to let go of the illusion that it could have been different and understand my purpose now. It’s not every day you’re going to feel your best, and I can’t even count how many pep talks I have with my body every day to function and “get it together”!

The funny part is I’m still the same as before, I’m just diagnosed with a life-changing illness that presents challenges. I’m just stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and my sense of humor is a bit dark.

People manage their chronic illness differently, it’s whatever works for you. At the end of the day, you made it, and that itself is a victory. Know your limitations, enjoy life, take your medications, be yourself, and most of all, rest and breathe because you are here, now.

Spotlight Story Program: Devri Velazquez’s Story

Meet Devri Velazquez

Our latest Spotlight Story comes from someone we’ve adored for over a year now.  She’s not only got one of the best Instagram aesthetics we’ve ever seen, but she also has found a real niche for combining artistry with health activism. It is beauty and wellness editor and writer, Devri Velazquez.  Whether she is in Texas, New York City (where our founder, Dominique got to meet her), or Chicago, Devri has maintained her constant push for awareness on the life of a becoming an adult while living with chronic illness, specifically when you’re becoming your own person with invisible illness.

At 20 years old, Devri was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune vascular disease called Takayasu’s Disease. This is “a rare type of vasculitis, a group of disorders that cause blood vessel inflammation. In Takayasu’s, the inflammation damages the aorta—the large artery that carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body—and its main branches. For Devri, it took a series of strange flu-like symptoms and within a few weeks, her diagnosis was found.

Like thousands of the InvisiYouth community, Devri was diagnosed as a young adult, and that is a time in life when you are still discovering so much of who you are, and where you’d like your life to go.

I was 20 when I was diagnosed, so I feel like I had to grow up and mature soon than a lot of people I knew,” Devri said. “I had to quit taking certain risks that young people around me weren’t anywhere close to stopping. I take my self-care seriously, as my life depends on setting healthy boundaries.”

This is an experience that so many older youth have to deal with when maintaining their friendships while taking care of their health needs.

Self-care needs to be a requirement when you’re living with chronic illness instead of just a personal motivator.

Devri’s health journey has absolutely not only shaped the way she lives her daily life, but also how she does her work as a writer and editor on beauty and wellness, which everyone can experience on her website.  “I live and breathe survival everyday, in the places I go and the people I meet,” she said. “This is my lifestyle, learning everyday how to cope with constant pain that fluctuates by the hour. I pour my heart and passion into everything I do because I try not to take a single moment for granted.

Living with chronic illness takes so much daily energy, so when you’re able to achieve your goals, there is an extra large dose of enjoyment that can be felt. Like Devri points out, it completely alters the way you adapt to each and every day based on how your body is feeling and what you are capable of doing. And while that could be a focus of negativity at the challenges life with chronic illness presents, Devri is also able to see how her diagnosis has also given her new perspectives on life.

I always knew I was strong, but this has made me feel unbreakable. Nothing on this Earth and no person’s words or actions could ever hurt me as much as my body does on a daily basis, so I have learned to be more open-minded to a lot of things and not take certain situations as seriously. Everything is temporary, nothing is permanent, so relish the good moments, and know that the bad ones will pass.

There is so much to get empowered with from Devri’s mentality on her health journey. She’s right: no external factors in life can be as damaging as chronic illness is to your health, so you are actually a lot stronger than you think. Devri makes such a fantastic point: when you are having bad health days, you need to remember everything is temporary and with inner strength and willpower, you can to push those bad health days.

This is something we definitely get to experience through Devri’s social media activism on her Instagram account. Another trait of Devri’s that we all adore at InvisiYouth Charity is her complete vulnerability and belief that by sharing her medical journey, she can not only help others but also learn and grow herself.

Vulnerability is something that has help me accept and embrace the illness that my body carries,” Devri said. “I don’t feel defined by it, but it’s a part of my story now, and I’m not ashamed. I’m actually pretty proud of how well I carry this burden. Being open to your community—family, friends, colleagues—is so important, for your own mental health as well as their understanding and compassion in your journey.

What Devri touches on a couple of critical factors every young adult with chronic illness needs to know.  First, is the understanding that we are never defined by our illnesses or disability, but rather they are part of our description. Our health is not who we are, but rather it is part of the way we view our life and world around us, and that is not anything we should be ashamed of.

Second, Devri mentions something InvisiYouth always promotes, and that is the fact that a support network is critical to our daily success in life. Our family, friends and coworkers/classmates, they are all the people that help us get through the bad days, and celebrate the good ones.

This amazing young woman is filled with knowledge, realness and motivation. Not to mention, some of the best writing and photography we ever see! So when we asked Devri what her main message in life for other with chronic illness would be, it is no surprise that Devri would give the best.

Be your biggest advocate,” Devri said. “Learn how to say ‘no’ with confidence. If something doesn’t feel right—an interaction with another person, an environment, a job—it is okay to walk away from it. Do what your gut instinct tells you to do, just trust it with everything and then respond accordingly. That’s your mind, body and soul aligning to work in the favor of your higher self.”