DUS Colorful Stories: See Me, Hear Me
Rhonda Jackson is a beautiful woman with a warm demeanor and a heart of gold, but there is a painful secret hiding behind her radiant smile.
After years of working as a corporate professional and exploring her passion for theatre as an actress, Jackson experienced a life-changing health crisis. Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disorder that causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues and organs, robbed Jackson of her strength, mobility, and the independence that she’d worked so hard to achieve.
In the early 1990s, Jackson balanced a full-time corporate job with an acting career while raising a young son, but in 1994 the demanding schedule began to take a physical toll and she developed muscle soreness and constant fatigue. One morning, despite her best efforts, she could not sit up in bed. Her doctor thought she had the flu, but the discomfort persisted. Jackson continued with her daily activities until one day she could not ignore the severity of her symptoms anymore, “I was at an audition, and I was just so fatigued. I knew I shouldn’t be there. That was the first time I felt that my health was out of control,” she says.
In the next weeks, she still felt ill. She returned to the doctor and was diagnosed with viral pneumonia before tragically suffering a miscarriage. Her doctor suspected lupus and sent her to a rheumatologist who confirmed the diagnosis. Initially, Jackson had no idea how debilitating the disease could be. Today, she is an advocate for health equity, spreading awareness about the effects of the disease and bringing attention to its global socio-economic impact.
Roughly 1.5 million Americans are living with lupus, and there are over 16,000 new cases per year, yet many people are unfamiliar with the invisible disability that is most prevalent among women of color from ages 15 to 45. The debilitating symptoms include fatigue, fever, joint pain, shortness of breath, and a tell-tale butterfly-shaped rash on the face or rashes elsewhere on the body. Known as “the great imitator,” it mimics several other illnesses and no two cases are the same, making it incredibly difficult to diagnose. One out of every 185 people in the United States has lupus, but despite the staggering increase in cases, there has been minimal advancement in lupus research. Only one medication, Benlysta, has been approved specifically for treatment in the last 60 years.
To increase understanding and support for people living with the chronic disease, Jackson penned a stage play titled, Crying Wolf: Stories of the Lupus Warriors, which presents several perspectives on what life with lupus is really like.
Jackson lived virtually symptom-free for nearly 10 years. In 1996, she gave birth to a second son, and was able to work and live a relatively normal life. The disease intensified in 2010, during a particularly stressful period at work. “Autoimmune diseases are very sensitive to stress. I don’t think I realized how much stress I was under, I was just going with the flow and trying to get through it,” Jackson remembers. Her doctor prescribed Prednisone, a synthetic corticosteroid for suppressing the immune system and inflammation, but the side effects made her miserable.
During the worsening health crisis, Jackson’s employer went out of business; she lost her health benefits and was faced with outrageous medical expenses. She attempted to find work, but with a low energy level in interviews, she did not receive a single job offer.
Jackson applied for disability benefits and received financial assistance from The Lupus Foundation of Colorado, an organization that provides financial assistance to improve the quality of life for people affected by lupus. With the financial strain reduced, she was still physically and emotionally overwhelmed.
“I was devastated,” she said, recalling the life-changing effects of her illness. “I couldn’t do anything I was accustomed to, or that I used to enjoy. Lupus affected my balance; I would fall all the time. I couldn’t even walk around the block.”
Lupus first attacked Jackson’s muscular system. She was diagnosed with polymyositis, an inflammatory disease that weakens skeletal muscles and makes physical tasks difficult, if not impossible. Her oldest son, Devin, moved back home from college to help around the house while her youngest son, Cole, attended high school. “They had to help me with things like getting off the toilet and getting dressed. It was very demoralizing, but it was my reality.”
Eventually, Jackson found a new physician, who prescribed treatments that helped her regain limited mobility, but polymyositis still prevents her from using her arms to perform various functions. In addition to the effects on her mobility, Jackson suffers from a seizure disorder, interstitial lung disease, and a worsening skin condition. With a lung capacity of less than 70 percent, Jackson participates in chair yoga to maintain physical activity and peace of mind to alleviate the anxiety of always wondering what changes she will experience next.
Jackson used journaling to cope with the effects of her illness. Her stage play, Crying Wolf: Stories of the Lupus Warriors premiered in February 2018, with touching vignettes and monologues that give a glimpse into life with the disease. The title, Crying Wolf, bears ironic significance, as the word “lupus” means “wolf” in Latin. “I named it Crying Wolf like the fable of the boy who cried wolf, because lupus is an unrecognizable disability. I don’t look like there is anything wrong, but I live with a plethora of issues.”
Many lupus patients are unable to work full time due to complications of the unpredictable illness, resulting in health disparities and inadequate insurance coverage. One in four people living with lupus receives disability payments, adding an economic strain that Jackson feels could be avoided if employers were willing to provide accommodations in the workplace.
“If employers understood lupus they might be more empathetic,” she says. “I can be a productive member of society, I just have to do it a different way.” She suggests flexible work schedules and increased opportunities to work from home as a way to combat unemployment.
Jackson attributes her positive attitude to her faith and the loving support system provided by her family. She enjoys life with her new husband, Bo, whose unwavering love, assistance, and ability to lift her spirits has been instrumental in protecting her quality of life.
In her role as the Community Outreach and Education Coordinator of the Lupus Foundation of Colorado, she works to raise awareness, urging family members and friends of lupus patients to learn more about the disorder and respect the limitations it creates. In addition to making financial contributions to support lupus research, she suggests that people consider the severity of the disease with patience and compassion. She encourages lupus patients to share their stories so that people know what they are going through, “It’s important to be transparent. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she says.
Jackson is a strong and courageous warrior who is fighting to give a voice to the silent disease. Despite all that she has been through, she is a beacon of hope for others who must navigate life with lupus, remaining hopeful that one day researchers will find a cure.
Senator Rhonda Fields is an inspirational community leader and well-respected politician. After the tragic loss of her only son, she could have given up on the system that failed to keep him safe. Instead, she launched a political career that has allowed her to work as an agent of change in her community.
Fields is an advocate for women, families, children and public safety. For over a decade, she has remained committed to improving the criminal justice system, working to protect the rights of victims and championing efforts to ensure a safe and productive environment for Colorado residents. She has served on numerous boards that support social and political advancement, in addition to working as the Founder and President of the Fields Wolfe Memorial Fund. Throughout her political career, she has earned numerous awards in recognition of the vast contributions she has made to her community.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Fields moved to Colorado Springs after high school, when her father was stationed at Fort Carson. She attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Special Education and a master’s degree in Psychology, Counseling, and Guidance, before being hired as a faculty member and working as an Academic Advisor and Counselor in the Office of Student Affairs.
After getting married in 1974; Fields had two children, a daughter, Maisha Fields, and a son, Javad Marshall Fields. After leaving UNC, she worked at the University of Denver for one year before pursuing a career in the private sector as a human resource professional and later a flight attendant for United Airlines. Fields divorced after 13 years of marriage, and continued to raise her children as a hard-working, middle-class single mother. She never imagined that she would experience the tragedy that changed her life.
On July 4, 2004, Marshall-Fields, who had just completed his junior year in college, hosted an outdoor Fourth of July picnic and rap battle at Lowry Park in Aurora with his friend, Gregory Vann. A confrontation at the end of the event resulted in one of the attendees, Sir Mario Owens, pulling out a gun. When Vann asked, “Why did you bring a gun to my party?” Owens shot him in the chest, shooting two more times as he fell to the ground.
After witnessing the incident, Marshall-Fields cooperated fully with investigators. He identified the driver, as well as Robert Ray and Owens as the shooters. Owens fled the state, but on July 13, Ray was arrested as an accessory to the shooting. He was released on bail and given a trial date of July 24, 2015, after spending just one week in custody.
Marshall-Fields did his best to cope with the death of his best friend, completing his senior year and graduating from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communications and Rhetoric. He had a bright future, which he planned to spend with his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Fields looked forward to watching him become a husband and father, a dream that would never be realized.
Arapahoe County prosecutors filed a motion to seal the addresses of Marshall-Fields and other witnesses, but six months passed before the motion was considered. None of the witnesses were offered state-funded witness protection services, and with no safety provisions in place, witness information was released to an associate of Owens and Ray.
Ray orchestrated a plan to eliminate the testimony of the case’s key witness. On June 20, 2005, four days before Marshall-Fields was set to testify against Ray for the murder of his best friend, he and his fiancée, Wolfe, were murdered by Owens in cold blood.
“His life and future were taken away,” says Fields, who received an outpouring of love and support from her family, who helped her get through the dark days following his death.
In response to the community’s outrage, investigators worked quickly to arrest Ray, filing first-degree murder charges in Vann’s killing. Ray was found guilty as an accessory to murder in Vann’s killing, and Owens was found guilty of first-degree murder. Both men were found guilty of first-degree murder for their roles in the murders of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe. They were sentenced to death and are currently awaiting execution.
Fields’ testimony was instrumental in solving the cases; she sat through five trials with quiet strength, resilience, and justice, empowered by the people closest to her. “I took the support that I got from others and started to be an advocate for crime victims,” she says.
Fields was appointed to the Colorado Commission on Criminal Juvenile Justice in 2007. She worked on public safety and criminal justice bills and testified before the Colorado legislation on a bill that would improve the state’s witness protection programs, as well as the Javad Marshall Fields & Vivian Wolfe Witness Protection Act, which was designed to increase safety for witnesses in criminal cases.
Incumbent state Representative Karen Middleton admired Fields’ vigor and intensity during her testimonies and recruited her to run for office in her place. Fields was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives for the City of Aurora in 2010 and re-elected in 2012 and 2014. In 2012, she was appointed Speaker Pro Tempore, making history as the first Black woman to hold the position in the state legislature.
In 2016, Fields was elected to the Colorado State Senate. Her election held great cultural and historical significance and served as a socio-economic asset for the state of Colorado. “I ran on a simple platform: to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities,” she says. She is working to strengthen role of citizen in criminal justice, saying “We need to break the cycle of silence as it relates to crime. We are in this community together; we need o keep an eye out for each other.”
Fields is committed to education and supports initiatives that reduce bullying in schools. She has introduced new laws that help grow Colorado’s economy, protect the environment, veterans, women’s rights and human rights of the underserved or homeless, and encourages citizens to create change by actively challenging inequity. “Each of us has to take ownership for inequity, lend voice to it, and change the course of direction. We must be the change we want to see.”
Fields emphasizes the importance of voting to affect change, “We can’t throw our hands up and say, ‘My vote doesn’t matter.’ We have to roll up our sleeves and get involved.” She instructs young voters to “Stay woke!” saying, “Young people need to educate themselves and seek knowledge to form their own opinions.” Emphasizing the importance of reading in addition to getting current news from the media, she urges people to research, “You have to read some of the case laws and understand the policies. Ask yourself is this a good policy for the state? Is it good for young people?”
After honoring her four-year commitment as a senator, Fields will be eligible to run for a higher congressional office in 2020. She continues to miss her son each day, saying “There’s a deep scar and emptiness in my heart that will never be filled.”
Despite a painful past, Fields leads with compassion and dignity, using her platform to create a better future for Colorado residents.
Editor’s note: These stories and others will be shared at Denver Urban Spectrum’s Colorful Stories...See Me, Hear Me luncheon on November 3, 2018 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Renaissance Hotel on Quebec Street in Denver. For more information, sponsorship opportunities, or tickets, call 303-292-6446, email email@example.com or visit www.eventbrite.com.