personal story

Zakiya Walters: Traveling the world despite lupus

Lupus Foundation of America

Resource Content

Zakiya Walters was diagnosed with lupus in 2010. Her sensitivity to sunlight and her chronic joint pain and fatigue can create challenges, but the Richmond, Virginia resident hasn’t stopped cruising the globe with her family—from the beaches of Hawaii to the Great Wall of China. Zakiya’s experiences have taught her tricks for enjoying a vacation while keeping her lupus in check.

Zakiya has learned to make sure her travel companions understand her disease before they set out for their destination. When she first began traveling after her diagnosis, her friends and family couldn’t always comprehend why she had to take frequent breaks and sometimes sit out during events.

She doesn’t let lupus prevent her from enjoying new experiences, but she’s also learned not to compromise her health.

“They were saying ‘you’re on vacation, you spent this money to come out,’ but at the same time I can’t,” says Zakiya. “No matter how much I paid, I have to make sure I manage this right now before it becomes worse while I’m in a different country.”

Now that she knows why her mom sometimes needs to take a breather (and what can happen if she doesn’t),  Zakiya’s 16-year-old daughter, Jordyn, keeps a close eye on her health, frequently reminding her to take breaks when it seems like she is pushing herself too hard. 

Zakiya has also learned to find out in advance how much walking will be involved during each trip. While she was in China, her tour group visited attractions all over the country, from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square to the First Emperor of China’s Terracotta Army. They would start each day by 7am and explore until at least 8pm. Luckily, Zakiya knew what to expect, and she was prepared to take breaks whenever the constant activities became too much. 

When she was able to keep going, her experiences were rewarding—like when she scaled the Great Wall of China despite its many daunting steps. Whenever she felt winded during that day, Zakiya would just stop and find somewhere to sit down for a bit.

Too much time in direct sunlight can drain Zakiya of her energy.

One of the major lupus symptoms Zakiya experiences is photosensitivity—her body reacts negatively when she is exposed to the radiation in sunlight. While it doesn’t cause her to break out in a rash like some people with lupus, too much time in direct sunlight can drain Zakiya of her energy. “It’s like I’m carrying weights,” she says. 

Since her travels often involve plenty of time outside, Zakiya always uses sunscreen and wears a hat with a large brim. Vacationing in Hawaii called for extra precautions—she made sure to cover up and stay in the shade whenever possible while she and her family were relaxing at the beach or visiting the battleship memorial in Pearl Harbor.

Between sneezing passengers and germs harbored by airline seats and trays, Zakiya has also discovered that staying healthy during long flights despite her weakened immune system can be a challenge. “When I got back from Hawaii I had a respiratory infection,” she says. “I was fine the whole 17 days, got on that plane, and I was so sick when I got back.” 

To reduce her risk of getting sick, Zakiya washes her hands often while she travels and cleans her airline seat and tray with disinfectant wipes.

For Zakiya, travel is about striking the right balance between adventure and caution. She doesn’t let lupus prevent her from enjoying new experiences, but she’s also learned not to compromise her health when she feels a flare looming. 

It was a choice she had to make after her seventh day in China, when Zakiya could tell she was on the verge of a flare. Her body was swollen from all the walking and she just felt spent. She was about to go to a much-anticipated show with her family, and while Zakiya was sad to miss it she knew what she needed to do. She asked her parents to take her daughter to the show with them while she spent the rest of the evening recuperating.

“You may not be able to make it to everything,” Zakiya says. “You have to listen to your body.”