Valinda Mitchell has stared death in the face and lived to tell about it. This scary tale wasn’t from skydiving either. She’s been jumping for over 25 years so she’s got a few of those, too! In 2004, after a months-long flare-up of her lupus symptoms, she found herself being put into a medically-induced coma. Valinda grabbed her husband John’s hand. Since she couldn’t speak, she gave him a skydiver’s handshake to say I love you and I’ll see you safe on the ground after the jump. Despite this assurance, her family was advised to begin planning for the worst. Her husband, children, parents, and extended family began wondering if they’d lose her to the disease that had been a part of her life for over two decades.
Nearly a week later, Valinda Mitchell came out of that coma and began the long, painful road to feeling human again. Today, most people meeting Valinda find it difficult to tell that she struggles daily with a chronic, debilitating disease like lupus. Kelly Farrington, owner of Velocity Sports Equipment, says, I can’t remember ever seeing her down about anything; she just does what needs to be done. Her vibrant smile and uplifting and positive spirit belie the fact that she faces challenges that most skydivers don’t even imagine.
Living with Lupus
Since being diagnosed in 1989, Valinda has lived with lupus with a vitality that sometimes surprises even her medical team. She wryly notes that at times it’s hard to get medical attention when the doctors say “You look fine”. Daily, she deals with muscular and skeletal issues. During the worst flare-ups it can be difficult to get out of bed and dress herself.
Through all this, she and John have raised four kids, who now range in age from 20 to 25. She’s built her own custom embroidery business, serving customers both inside and outside of the skydiving community. Kelly Farrington, a longtime business partner to Mitchell’s Embroidery says “I can honestly say I don’t know how she does everything she does! I don’t have that kind of energy, which leads me to believe that she has superhuman powers.
Adapting Skydiving to Chronic Disease
Freshly D-licensed with 215 jumps when she was diagnosed, Valinda has modified her skydiving habits to build up to over 1700 jumps today. On the rare (but glorious) sunny days at her home in Western Washington, Valinda needs to be very careful to manage her exposure to the sun. Because of muscle damage caused by the disease, she lacks the strength to take an outside position on exits. To compensate, sheâ€™s developed an ability to swoop smoothly and quickly to a formation that most skydivers would envy!
Fighting fatigue is one of the biggest ongoing tests. Even in freefall sometimes I just don’t have enough energy to even take that next grip, she says. Her supportive family (both her biological family and her adopted skydiving family) pitches in to keep her in the air. Son Brett takes time away from his lucrative packing business to pack for mom if husband John isn’t available. Dirt dives are held in the shade, and everyone at the DZ knows exactly where to put Valinda in a formation to maximize her strengths and minimize the discomfort. (Of course, one look at her photos and it’s pretty obvious she’s not base meat anyway!)
From Recovery to Action
While she was still recovering from her near-fatal experience, Valinda (along with John and friends) dreamed up the idea to hold a Leap for Lupus to raise money for lupus research. Although over 1.5 million people in the United States have lupus, the disease’s complexity has left the medical community stymied in the search for effective and reliable treatment options.
The first Leap for Lupus took place in August, 2005 in Bremerton, WA. Twenty-five women set a Northwest women’s formation record, and the first funds were raised and donated via another lupus organization. Since working through another organization made it impossible to target funds to lupus research, the Leap for Lupus Foundation was born.
Setting Up a Foundation, Not for the Faint of Heart!
The Mitchells then began the tedious steps of setting up a foundation, including lots of process, planning, and paperwork. As Valinda puts it “None have been particularly tough, just time consuming.” The foundation structure allows careful management of organizational overhead to ensure that the donations get funneled directly to lupus research. It also allows targeted donations to focus exclusively on research to find a cure for lupus.
The Leap for Lupus Foundation has raised over $100,000 for lupus research through 2005-2012, and associated fundraising activities. For the past six years, the donations have gone directly to the University of Washington Division of Rheumatology.
Longtime skydiving friend John Kowalewski says “The amazing thing about Valinda is that even with the challenge of Lupus facing her; she has managed to turn things to a positive mode that will help others. Life is not all about her. What a great attitude”.
The foundation has partnered with Adventures4Charity to allow potential tandem students to raise funds for the Leap for Lupus Foundation and have the opportunity to do their tandem skydive for free. This partnership allows the foundation to expand its reach beyond Washington and beyond licensed skydivers. You can also contact Valinda directly if you live in Washington State and she’ll set up a local fund raising campaign for you. And if you’re lucky, when you reach your goal, Valinda will jump out with you!
Valinda shows no signs of slowing down. She says, I’ve been told over the years that I will not be able to jump anymore by doctors. She’s had to take some time off recently because she was diagnosed with (AVN)Avascular Necrosis in both hips. This was caused from the drugs she’s had to take over the years to control her lupus. But she was back in the air at this year’s Leap for Lupus event! Making 2 jumps with her son Brett, who has recently started skydiving. I have had thoughts from time to time that there may eventually be an end but so far so good. I’m hoping that day never comes. Kelly Farrington agrees. She’s the strongest person I know, and always seems to be in great spirits and willing to lend a hand. She’s inspired many a person to rally behind the Leap for Lupus cause and promises to continue to do so well into the future.
This article has been updated and was first published in BlueSkies Magazine in their first issue July 2009, written by Krisanne Combs.