For her 30th birthday last December Liz Morasso wanted to fly. Or at least be weightless. “I’m always trying to find creative ways to manage my pain. It feels like a pressure weighing down my whole body,” says Morasso, a clinical social worker in the Department of Radiation Oncology at UCLA.
Morasso hasn’t felt truly free of this pain since before her diagnoses of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and lupus at age 16. She settled on skydiving to recapture those sensations and to signal her quest for emotional and physical freedom. Her husband gave her a jump as a birthday present and, though she doesn’t love heights, she went for it.
“It did exactly what I wanted, and more – I felt no pain, I felt free, and I felt able – all these things I go back and forth about because of my health,” says Morasso, who also used the dive to bring attention to her fundraising for the Arthritis Foundation’s Los Angeles Jingle Bell Run.
Determination and Success
Although she was still a teenager, Morasso’s pediatric rheumatologist confirmed she had both RA and lupus. But treatment brought her health back to almost pre-diagnosis levels. She finished high school in Scotch Plains, N.J., with more energy than she’d begun.
Starting college at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., meant more stress, more work and medication changes. As a freshman Morasso noticed increasing pain and fatigue. It wasn’t until she’d almost finished her second year, however, that she faced her next big health challenge.
A few weeks before finals, she found herself struggling to speak and with her emotions and an amped-up sensitivity to light and sound. Days later she was in an intensive care unit. This time doctors diagnosed central nervous system lupus, but Morasso couldn’t ask questions. She’d completely lost her ability to speak and write, and neither her parents nor the doctors knew whether she understood the conversations going on around her.
She did, as it turned out, and what she heard scared her. “They had no idea if I’d recover or how much. I’m outgoing, and in high school I was able to make up for some physical limitations just by being kind of a loudmouth,” Morasso says. “To have that taken away made me feel lost.”
After three weeks of intensive treatment in the hospital, Morasso was on the road back to health – and to talking and writing. She stayed out of college for six months to focus on getting better. She waitressed, practiced her speech and took classes at the local college to bolster her confidence and to avoid falling too far behind.
She returned to school determined to make up lost time, and enrolled in some graduate courses for their higher number of credits. Some of these were in social work, and Morasso was drawn to the profession and its emphasis on the whole person.
“When I went back I knew I needed to accept that my goals might need to look a little different than I’d originally planned,” says Morasso. “I decided that I was going to try my best with whatever happens and with whatever comes from it. And what came from it was my career in social work, which is something I feel very passionate about.”
Energy and Focus
After finishing her undergraduate degree she moved from the East to the West Coast to begin graduate studies at UCLA. She earned a master’s degree and clinical social work certification.
Today, Morasso counsels the young adults she sees as patients and in her lupus and rheumatic diseases support groups to find a career they love – and one that’s realistic for them physically and emotionally.
“If you’re passionate about something it puts energy back in,” says Morasso, who also stresses the importance of tapping into arthritis resources.
Her rheumatologist introduced her to the Arthritis Foundation right after her diagnoses, and she’s been taking part in walks and other activities ever since. As the Arthritis Foundation’s current Young Adult Chair for the Pacific Region she’s also working to connect people her age to programs and services.
“I also tell young people to get to know their ADA rights, and to tap into disability resources offered by their schools and colleges,” she says.
Next for Morasso is carving out more time to improve her physical fitness and diet. “I’m always looking for ways to take control of my health even if my lupus and arthritis are things I can’t control as much,” she says. “I think the future holds a better me.”