After 17 years in the military Maj. Antoinette Grimes thought she was finally getting the opportunity to serve her country until a collapsed lung separated her from her unit leaving for Iraq. She recovered from that ailment and did serve in Afghanistan, but she was medevaced because she had gone into the early stages of kidney failure.
“I felt bad, because you had trained together and they are dependent on you,” she said. “I just felt like I couldn’t do anything.”
Grimes, a resident of Mesa, had been diagnosed with autoimmune disease lupus and was forced to retire from the military, which had been her life.
“I was shocked, because I was active duty in the military and by this time I had been in 17 years,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone with lupus... All I could do was Google it and everything I saw was pretty scary.”
When she left the military, Grimes decided lupus was not going to alter the course of her life and she enrolled at Mesa Community College. She now works as a lupus support group facilitator, advocate for female veterans and a personal trainer for people with disabilities.
Grimes only told her family and close friends after she was diagnosed, but eventually she had to share the news of her condition because of the medical issues associated with lupus. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that is difficult to diagnose because it can sometimes seem like other diseases. It sometimes manifests as painful joints, swelling, anemia and extreme fatigue.
Most people with lupus are women, and the disease often becomes visible when they hit puberty.
“It’s basically where your body turns against itself,” Lupus Inspiration for Excellence President Jodi Norton said. “It’s been called the great imitator because … you have so many different systems that it often gets misdiagnosed.”
Norton was diagnosed with lupus in high school, which made it impossible for her to follow her dreams of being an athlete.
“You get it during the best years of your life and it makes it difficult,” she said.
Grimes was recently awarded a scholarship from L.I.F.E., which strives to help people with lupus trying to go to school, as it’s difficult to be successful in school with lupus.
“If you have an illness and you go to school and you get sick, you may have to drop out,” Norton said. “If you have to drop out you may lose financial aid or scholarships, and if you have to be a part-time student there aren’t a lot of scholarships for that.”
Norton said Grimes received one of the scholarships because she has done a lot of community service and seeks to inspire others with lupus.
“There was a special place in our heart for her because she was serving our country and gave so much for the country, and then to turn around and have to do something new and she makes it look easy,” she said.
When Grimes prepared to go to college after high school, the military had been more of a backup option. However, after losing her scholarship to the University of Arizona in her first year, she joined the ROTC program.
“My recruiter kept calling and he asked me what was going on,” she said. “He told me that I could go in the Army part time and I could still be in school.”
Grimes worked her way through the ranks of the military for the next 17 years until she was diagnosed with lupus and couldn’t deploy with her unit because of her collapsed lung.
“I had been in 17 years and hadn’t deployed at that time,” she said. “I told my rheumatologist, ‘All my other friends have deployed and it’s my time to serve.’”
Even though Grimes had to leave the military, she has been able to make a difference in others’ lives through several different channels. This has become important to her because she knows developing a community is one way to stay strong.
Grimes has not let her lupus run her life, and she hopes others do not let the disease take over their future.
“You are definitely going to have a new normal, and you just have to take it one day at a time,” she said.
• Shelby Slade is a sophomore at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an intern with the Tribune this semester. Reach her at email@example.com.