After coming home from the gym one day in July 2015, Audrey Ayala suddenly couldn’t speak or see, and she felt a worrisome numbness in her left arm and leg. She ended up in the emergency room, where doctors suspected she was having a stroke. That wasn’t the case.
The doctors did not diagnose her with any illnesses, but they did transfer her to a neuro-intensive care unit at another hospital, where she remained for a couple of days. There, doctors ran several tests on Ayala, including MRIs of her brain. They found more than a dozen brain lesions, or areas that didn’t look like regular brain tissue. The neurologist who examined her suspected she had either one of two illnesses: multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the immune system attacks the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibers in the central nervous system, or lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks various tissues and organs.
Based on Ayala’s symptoms and abnormal levels of C3 and C4 compounds (proteins that can change during a lupus flare), the neurologist recommended she see a rheumatologist, i.e., a specialist in detecting and treating autoimmune disorders. After her emergency room visit, she continued to suffer from leg weakness, joint pain, and short-term memory loss, she says.
When Ayala saw the rheumatologist three months later, she finally had an official diagnosis to explain the mysterious and terrifying symptoms she’d continued to experience: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). SLE is the most common form of the autoimmune disease known as lupus, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Having lupus increases the risk of cardiovascular events, like heart attacks, strokes, and transient ischemic attacks (TIA), often called ministrokes, Peter Izmirly, M.D., assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine’s department of medicine, tells SELF. Transient ischemic attacks can cause the kinds of symptoms that landed Ayala in the emergency room.
Ayala, now 28, is a Hispanic woman, which puts her at an increased risk of developing lupus. So why hadn’t she ever heard of it?
Although the cause of lupus is unknown, experts have discovered that the condition is two to three times more likely to affect women of color than it is to affect white women.
Lupus can trigger bodily inflammation that causes debilitating symptoms, and it’s notoriously hard to diagnose because it can affect so many parts of the body. Someone with the disease may experience joint pain, fatigue, hair loss, a facial rash, chest pain, dry eyes, trouble breathing, headaches, confusion, and memory loss, among other symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.