LUMBERTON — Kayla Britt’s biggest challenge in the classroom was health.
Not the course — but her struggle with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue.
Doctors told Brit she would not graduate high school on time because her illness was causing her to miss too much school. But Britt, 21, not only graduated Lumberton High School with her classmates, but also graduated Campbell University in four years.
Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. The most common symptom is a skin rash on the face or upper body. The disease can lead to kidney damage, lung or liver cancer or bone-tissue death.
Britt originally did not think her diagnosis, which she received in September 2002, was serious — despite the fact that the then-11-year-old’s kidneys were failing.
“I cried because I thought I was supposed to,” she said.
Britt realized how grave the disease was when she endured 18 months of chemotherapy and started suffering the day-to-day effects of battling lupus.
“It comes with a lot of fatigue,” Britt said. “I had to rest a lot, which is a problem because I’m an overachiever. I had to miss a lot of school … I wasn’t allowed to play sports.”
She said she missed school because of fatigue related to her “nearly nonexistent” immune system. She was at risk when she was in class with sick classmates.
Britt said she made up her missed classes by having schoolwork brought to her in the hospital and taking work with her to chemo treatments. Despite missing almost a year of high school, she graduated on time in 2009, ranking “30-ish” in a class of 500.
Britt chose to attend Campbell University with the help of university supporters and family friends Howard and Eva Cooper, who sponsor a scholarship for students enrolled in Campbell’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law.
“They told me, ‘We’ll support you no matter what you choose, but we’d love it if you went to Campbell,’” she said.
Britt graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice. She will attend the N.C. Central University School of Law, and plans to become a family law attorney.
“I have a passion for helping people,” she said.
Joy Hickman saw Britt’s determination in battling lupus. As Britt’s kindergarten teacher at Rowland Norment Elementary School, Hickman said Britt was “an incredible student” and “always excited about learning.”
“She was already a go-getter as a kindergartner,” Hickman said. “No challenge was too big.”
Hickman has kept in contact with Britt throughout her life, attending her 16th birthday and college graduation parties and teaching her brother and niece in kindergarten.
Hickman said she was “absolutely heartbroken” to hear of Britt’s diagnosis, but said Britt inspired her friends as well as her family during her struggle.
“It was probably overwhelming for the younger kids to see someone their age who was that sick, but she was that determined to keep going,” Hickman said.
Britt participates in the annual Walk to End Lupus Now in Fayetteville, which is sponsored by the Lupus Foundation of America. Britt’s team, which represents Campbell University, has raised $2,000 during the last three years that will be used to pay for research into new lupus treatments.
“There has been one treatment for lupus in 52 years. It was released in 2012 and it’s only for some patients,” Britt said. “[Lupus] remains anonymous to a lot of people.”
Last year, Britt was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which causes extreme body aches and tender joints, and autoimmune neutropenia, a blood disorder usually found in infants.
“I still take medicine,” she said. “I can’t be in the sun.”
Britt said she would encourage other lupus patients to persevere.
“I’d tell them disease does not defeat success,” she said. “I have lupus, but lupus doesn’t have me.”