Look at Lynda O'Dea and it's easy to see only the glamour. The long blond hair falling softly around her shoulders. The diamond ring sparkling on her right hand. The stride as graceful as any prize thoroughbred's.
To some degree, that's been Ms. O'Dea's forte over the last five years -- selling the glamour and excitement of Maryland horse racing. As vice president of marketing at Laurel and Pimlico race courses, she created glorious casinolike Sports Palaces, surrounded races with lavish special events and polished up the image of the Preakness by introducing a now legendary lawn party for corporate high rollers.
Then there was her relationship with wealthy horse racing executive Frank De Francis, who died in August 1989. The two were among Baltimore's most visible couples, a sophisticated pair who had dined with President Bush, entertained Donald Trump and brought a certain cachet to any party they attended.
But listen to Lynda O'Dea speak and a vastly different person emerges. Sitting in the Mount Vernon office of O'Dea & Becker, her new marketing and public relations firm, she seems at turns shy and vulnerable, a woman who speaks of the many tragedies she's faced in her 41 years, the misperceptions about her, and life without the man she loved and admired for 17 years.
"I feel like my life was a big puzzle and all the pieces were almost together," she says. "Then it got thrown off the table, scattered into a thousand pieces when I lost Frank. Now I've been gluing them back together, but I realize that the picture on the puzzle is different. The pieces fit, but the picture is all confused and I'm trying to repaint it."
What she's painting -- or forcing herself to paint -- into that picture today is a public disclosure about something she has kept private from even close friends until recently -- her 23-year battle with lupus.
An incurable disease of the immune system, lupus causes the body to attack its own cells and kills one in 10 patients. For Ms. O'Dea, it has brought "allergies to 38 foods, anything that smells pretty and anything that grows out of the ground or on a tree," asthma and pain in her joints and muscles.
"It's like the inside of your body's on fire," she explains, her voice cracking with the words. "When you're bad, you can't move."
She decided to discuss her illness now -- and agreed to be honored by the Maryland Lupus Foundation at a dinner last Thursday -- in order to finally confront the disease head-on and encourage others.
"Part of it was a psychological trick on my part," she says of her past secrecy. "I thought I was conquering it by denying it. It was sort of like, 'Gee, maybe it's not going to notice me if I don't admit to myself that I have this. Maybe it will continue to leave me alone.' . . . But I still have it. I feel it. It's with me almost all the time."
A board member since 1988, she was approached by the foundation, which hoped to raise money and awareness by honoring her. Although she realized she could help the group meet its goals in other ways, she knew she could never reach other patients without admitting she knew firsthand what they were experiencing.
"When I was so sick, if I had known other women, or even one other woman who had gone over 10 years with minor pain and minor problems, and most importantly a woman who had gotten through the fear of it, that would have helped me sleep a lot better than I slept," she says. "So I said, 'OK, if I help one person sleep better tonight, I'm going to do it.' "
In hindsight, Ms. O'Dea believes the disease first struck when she was a teen-ager, constantly battling fatigue and cases of flu. After her son Michael was born 23 years ago, lupus came on full force. She became debilitated, suffering excruciating pain in her joints and muscles.
"I couldn't care for my child at all," she says. "I couldn't hold my baby. I couldn't open the refrigerator to get his bottle out."
She saw doctor after doctor in search of an answer. Rheumatoid arthritis, said one. Anemia, said another. A thyroid condition, said a third.
"I remember thinking there was an underlying problem, but I didn't want to know," she says. In fact, one doctor had diagnosed her illness, but the physician and Ms. O'Dea's family decided to keep the news from her, since the disease is aggravated by stress.
When she became pregnant with her second child, the secret had to be revealed. Her mother-in-law told her she had lupus. "I had never even heard of it," she says. Her doctor suggested terminating the pregnancy and gave her a grim prognosis: She )) had two to three years to live.
"I didn't believe it," she recalls. "I felt I was too young to die. I had a young baby and another one on the way."
She gave birth to Christina, now 20, and spent the next years resolute in her fight against lupus. By making weekly trips to the doctor, taking steroid shots and avoiding stress, she went into remission. She has not faced a life-threatening bout since.