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Lavetta Smith first thought the irritation on her face was a pimple or a blemish. She had no reason to think she was ill. She lived the stereotypically fast-paced life of a New Yorker in 2003. When she wasn’t working in marketing for a cosmetics company or raising her two kids, Smith loved to dance.

But when a dermatologist showed up to her employer’s health fair, she decided to ask him to take a look. He told her to get a biopsy, and the results came back positive for a rare inflammatory disease called sarcoidosis. Over a decade, it spread from her skin to her lungs, and she was told that she’d need a double-lung transplant in order to live more than a year. It was like the floor had fallen out from under her. “It was almost like grief, in a sense,” she recalls. “I was grieving that I was this sick.”

Needing a break from the relentless pace of the city, Smith relocated to North Carolina to be closer to her doctors and to prepare for the procedure. Once there, the medical team encouraged her to join an online group for emotional support. She was reluctant, but one day she decided she could use a little encouragement. Smith put on some lipstick, took a picture of herself and expressed how happy she felt that she had been able to get up and take a shower that day after a bout of fatigue and depression.

“A person’s best health is a combination of physical, mental and social factors. It’s so much more than a visit to the doctor.”

Dr. Shantanu Agrawal

Chief Health Officer at Elevance Health

The comments came rolling in—and were a breath of fresh air.  “I realized that sometimes we just have to show up for ourselves,” Smith said. “It made a huge difference, and it definitely made me feel a lot better and a lot safer to be in these groups, to speak in these groups.”

“A support group, like the one Lavetta Smith joined, can play a significant role in healing,” said Dr. Shantanu Agrawal, chief health officer for Elevance Health. “That’s because a person’s best health is a combination of physical, mental and social factors. It’s so much more than a visit to the doctor.” 

After her experience with the online support group, Smith agrees with Agrawal. “The body will naturally heal itself over time,” she said. “However, I feel like what also should be incorporated into healing is mental, emotional and spiritual healing as well.”

“Lavetta’s story shows how a hobby like knitting is a positive outlet that can help us manage our mental health, which can in turn help us take care of our physical health.”

Dr. Shantanu Agrawal

Chief Health Officer at Elevance Health

Supplementing her online group, Smith found support from her daughter, A’lia Coker, who moved to North Carolina about a year after her mother did. “I would do whatever I could for my mom, whether it was being her driver, or just being an ear to listen to. ‘Cause she’d do the same for me—anything big or small.”

Knitting became a contributor to her well-being, too. “It was definitely my saving grace,” Smith said. “It’s just something that is very therapeutic for me.”

“Lavetta’s story shows how a hobby like knitting is a positive outlet that can help us manage our mental health, which can in turn help us take care of our physical health,” Agrawal said. “The online group and her daughter rounded out the whole-health picture because both nurture Lavetta’s social health.”

Post-surgery, Lavetta is thriving. She no longer needs oxygen to breathe and has regained her mobility—and the active lifestyle she once enjoyed. The woman who was once reluctant to join in and speak up in an online support group now dreams of becoming a motivational speaker. She credits the camaraderie with others who could relate to her situation that helped her mentally find strength and physically get back on her feet.

“I’m just really proud of her,” said Coker, of the way her mother sought support beyond only medical treatment. “She’s grown so much mentally and physically. But what makes me most proud is knowing she was able to pull herself out of it.”

 

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