I sensed fragility when I first met Crystal Harrell, due to her slight frame, gentle beauty and shy smile.
I quickly learned I was wrong—and found out how strong and determined she is.
Harrell, 23, is a native of the Coachella Valley—born in Indio, and currently residing in La Quinta. She attended College of the Desert, and graduated with a degree in communication and film from the California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus.
Harrell’s family sounds perfectly “normal”: Her mom was a homemaker, with her dad working at Lowe’s (“My dad has never had to hire anybody to do anything!”), and a brother two years younger who is pursuing creative and graphic arts.
Harrell found her calling as a writer through reading. “I was always very shy,” she says, “but reading was a big thing for me. Before I could even read them, I’d look at picture books and make up the stories myself. Reading gives me time to digest, and to wonder whether the ideas resonate. My favorite book when I was young is Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I also loved Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and Michael Crichton.
“In high school, I was on the newspaper, and then I was editor at COD. I like that kind of writing—so different from creative writing. I like to write in a journal. I have a desire to always learn more, and it’s a great feeling to send something out into the world for others. I like writing about local stories and current events, especially to reach people who aren’t from the Coachella Valley, who don’t really know how much the Coachella Valley has to offer. We have a multi-city spectrum offering very different things.”
Harrell’s story seems to be very “normal” … until she talks about the illness that totally changed her life. Pemphigus vulgaris struck just as Harrell had completed her studies at COD. It manifested initially as a couple of blisters on her nose before moving to her mouth and gums. She consulted dentists and got no help. She began to experience open skin sores on her body and consulted dermatologists—and still got no help. Everyone had something they wanted to try, from creams to pills, but nobody knew exactly what the underlying condition was.
Pemphigus is a debilitating autoimmune disorder that affects perhaps 10,000 people annually in the United States. Cells literally become separated, and the body begins to attack itself. Harrell finally took matters into her own hands—when her skin was literally falling off, and she was in pain to even wear clothing.
“It was a real struggle,” she says. “I didn’t know what I had. It went from a few blisters on my face and body to my skin falling off. It took about six months to finally know what was wrong. I started researching and got myself to Loma Linda, where they diagnosed it. Before that, I really thought it was the end for my future. I was then in my first quarter at Cal State, and I was determined to continue toward my goals.
“I’m in remission now, but you never know when it might come back. My body may be at war with itself, but I know I’ll come out victorious in the end. I have goals and dreams that are bigger than what I was dealing with.”
Harrell is grateful for the support of her family during the agonizing months of her worst symptoms. “I had faith that gave me the strength to push forward,” she says. “I was so pleased to have an article about all that happened get accepted to be published online so I can help others be able to get diagnosed.”
Harrell’s positive attitude is evident when you spend time with her, and she is quick to acknowledge the influence of her family and her longtime boyfriend.
“My mom and I were always very close,” she says. “She encouraged me to dream big. If not for her, I might never have found journalism, because when I really didn’t know what direction to go in, she suggested it. Nobody else in my family is a writer. She always gave me the room to blossom—and my dad has been very supportive of my desire to write. I remember reading with him, sitting in his lap when I was young.
“I met my boyfriend my freshman year of high school. We connected through writing, through a way with words. He’s an aspiring film director. It’s a very special relationship, not based on outward things, but based on thoughts and a mutual passion for writing. I can feel words physically.”
Harrell’s day job is as a report editor for a medical legal firm in Indio, but she also does freelance writing, covering local events like the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and submitting pieces to community newspapers. Although she has “dabbled” in novels and poetry, her goal is to work full-time for a major publication, and to write a book about her personal struggle.
“Someday, I’d like to travel to Europe. As much as I love it here, I want to get out and explore,” she says. “I want to go places and meet people and learn. There is so much we never dream we can do.”
Crystal Harrell has an inspiring story to tell. Her strength and determination in the face of a debilitating illness are an example to all of us, as are her words.
“You have to find what gives you joy and hold onto that feeling. Happiness is the strongest medicine.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.