West Bridgewater woman battles against lupus
WEST BRIDGEWATER, Mass.—The first time she fell, she had just awoken and left her bed. That's when the teenager knew something was wrong. "I thought `Huh, that's different,' " said Jessie Russell, who was a junior at West Bridgewater High School then.
It was just the start.
She fell the next morning, because of swollen, fatigued legs -- and again the next. Then, she broke some of her fingers at basketball practice, began feeling tired, and soon started waking at midnight, vomiting.
Doctors were perplexed, so in spring 2005 she spent a week at Children's Hospital in Boston before getting the life-changing news. She had systemic lupus erythematosus -- lupus, the disease where the body's immune system becomes the enemy, attacking tissue and organs. Hers was worse, because a biopsy revealed the lupus had already damaged her kidneys, leading to stage-four nephritis, or kidney disease -- stage five meant dialysis or a kidney transplant.
The day after her diagnosis, Easter Sunday, she began chemotherapy and a steroid treatment -- to save her kidneys, and her life. But Jessie, a star athlete in several sports, especially basketball and softball, admits she didn't grasp the seriousness of her diagnosis.
"I was more upset not about lupus, but about missing softball," she said. "Even in the hospital I was like, `This is ridiculous, I have softball on Monday. Just get me home.'"
Jessie would have to immediately start a six-month regimen of chemotherapy, which suppresses the over-active immune system and limits the damage done to organs.
Seven years later, at 24, she lives with lupus, and has regained her life of athletics.
She returned home and to high school softball the day after her first treatment. That season, she missed just two weeks and four games. But her treatment would continue.
Her commitment to sports, however, helped her endure the regimen, said her father, Jeff. It was that discipline that helped her balance her seven intravenous chemotherapy treatments in Boston with an unparalleled sports career in high school.
"Even with lupus, she was still scoring points like crazy," said her father.
But she couldn't do it alone.
A basketball star who scored her 1,000th point as a junior, she would soon spend halftimes vomiting and trying to refuel her body. After games, she would be so fatigued that her brothers Josh and Jeff would carry her into the house, even helping her change out of her uniform.
"It was like, `OK, you're my brothers, help me change,'" Jessie said, laughing.
With the help of her brothers, the Russells found ways to inject humor into the treatment grind, which involved waking early and traveling to Children's Hospital for her chemotherapy.
"I tried to add a bit of humor to lessen the seriousness of her chemo treatment," said her brother Jeff, "by sending her off with the line, `Do good at chemo.'"
Hearing that, said Jessie, was "awesome."
Jessie's father, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Old Colony YMCA, might have been hardest hit. Soon, the family began calling him "Daddy Sadpants" because he was so emotional.
But her father shed his nickname when he was finally able to joke about what she was going through. It was a day Jessie said she will never forget -- when the two joked about who would win a fight.
"I don't think you can beat me, I'm pretty strong," Jessie told her father.
He responded: "I'll just punch your kidneys."
Jessie couldn't stop laughing.
Lupus couldn't slow Jessie.
Before she graduated as salutatorian from West Bridgewater High in 2006, she was named an all-scholastic several times by both The Enterprise and Boston Globe, helped lead two softball teams to state titles, and had her basketball No. 23 shirt retired.
The Mayflower League also created an award in her name, which is given to a player who overcomes adversity.
Doctors couldn't slow her, either. After she was accepted to Harvard University, they asked Jessie to take a reduced course load, but she was stubborn.
"I thought, what's one extra course?" she said.
But Harvard's rigorous academic schedule took a toll on her health -- and after having to make several hospital visits, she had to withdraw from the extra course.
But Harvard helped, placing her in dorms near her classes and urgent care, if needed. Friends on campus also helped her by picking up her medications and bringing her in for treatment.
Even with the help, Jessie's vision began failing her senior year, becoming so poor she couldn't drive or read.
She was soon diagnosed with retinal toxicity -- vision loss caused by one of her medications, which can be permanent if not treated quickly.
Jessie withdrew for the semester and regained her vision.
She returned to Harvard and graduated in December 2010. She is now taking time off to get her health in order -- and train for fundraising events such as the Children's Hospital run.
Jessie still receives a daily oral chemotherapy treatment, but it is not as intense as the initial six-month course.
Her mother, Suki, continues to be impressed with how her daughter has responded.
"We say Jessie is our only kid who could handle lupus," she said. "She's never been one to take the easy way out."
In fact, Jessie prefers the hard workouts -- and as her energy allows, she runs and cross-trains out of the Old Colony YMCA in East Bridgewater.
"I'd rather take risks," she said, "and try to do something than just not do it and be afraid lupus is going to dictate what I can and can't do."