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REAL LIVING: Gift aids Georgians with lupus
Gracie Bonds Staples - Staff
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tomica Gill and her sister, Darcel, talked almost daily. If they didn't talk on the telephone, they e-mailed.

And when Tomica wasn't e-mailing her sister, she was sending messages to nieces and nephews.

That's why it was odd when she didn't respond to any of them.

After three days of silence, of not one message, after three days of their phone messages being herded into voice mail, Darcel began to worry. She called a cousin and asked her to check on Tomica.

She found her lying in bed. No one knows for sure when she took her last breath, but the 32-year-old was gone --- dead from a heart attack.

For most of her life, Tomica had been ill, said her sister, Darcel Gill-Knowles, in a telephone interview from her home in Inkster, Mich.

She was 5 when doctors diagnosed her with lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disease that for unknown reasons attacks the body's own tissue and organs. Five years old.

Darcel remembers the moment doctors gathered her family in the hospital room and broke the news. They told them Tomica wouldn't live past 10.

Yes, I will, Tomica told them. I have things to do.

Sure enough, Tomica always had something to do. Even when she was sick, when the disease put her in the hospital for the umpteenth time, when the medication caused huge weight fluctuations and the children teased her for being overweight, she got things done.

When it looked like she couldn't, Tomica figured out a way.

Once during final exams in high school, her hands and joints were so swollen it was impossible to write. Tomica simply used her toes.

Having lupus, she told Darcel once, was like having a battlefield on the inside.

That was true for Tomica and it was true for her family. When Tomica went into the hospital, and she went a lot, their lives stopped. They hurt too.

"Lupus is the hardest thing in life you'll ever deal with," said Darcel. "If we had a cold, she caught a cold and went into the hospital."

Tomica graduated from high school in 1991 and then from West Virginia State.

By 2000, the Michigan winters and arthritis were more than she could take. Doctors suggested a warmer climate might be easier on her.

Tomica moved to Atlanta. She was the student coordinator at the Art Institute of Atlanta. In her spare time, she volunteered in the community and was active with her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.

In May she graduated from Argosy University with a master's degree in psychology.

She was planning to pursue a doctorate. When her cousin found her July 31, the application was still on the dining room table at her Dunwoody apartment. A list of unanswered e-mails blinked from her computer screen.

As their mother entertained the grandchildren, Darcel packed her sister's belongings in preparation for her final trip back to Inkster.

That's when she found the $50,000 insurance policy.

The family could have used the money. It was the one thing they never had enough of. But they understood why Tomica made the Lupus Foundation of America the sole beneficiary. "She wanted a cure really, really bad," Darcel said.

The enormity of Tomica's gift is "rare and was incredibly well-timed," said Maria Myler, head of the foundation's Atlanta chapter.

Not only will the donation help reach out to the 55,000 other Georgians suffering from lupus, she said, it will help raise awareness.

Darcel said her sister, who would've celebrated her birthday today, never shared her plans with them because she never talked about death.

She was always too busy living.

To suggest a story, write Real Living, The Atlanta Journal- Constitution, 72 Marietta St. N.W., Atlanta, GA 30303; e-mail gstaples@ajc.com ; or call 404-526-5370.