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As an Emmy-winning entertainment reporter for Fox 2 News in Detroit, Lee Thomas has one of the coolest jobs on the planet—working in television. While finding success in his professional life in front of the camera, he has fought a difficult one behind it. Thomas is a black man slowly turning white due to a disease called vitiligo, which has no cause or cure. He recently penned a book titled, Turning White: A Memoir of Change, and all of the proceeds from sales are going to his Turning White Foundation to provide support to others who are suffering from this disease. In this episode of Change Nation, Thomas shares firsthand how his health diagnosis has affected him and why this change ultimately has been a blessing.
How did you react to the news of the diagnosis when the doctors told you what you had?
When the words came out of his mouth, I went into this space in my head where it was like tunnel vision. It was like [listening to] Charlie Brown’s teacher. He was still talking. But, I couldn’t hear what he was saying, because I was caught in my own world where I really thought it was going to be the end [of my career].
I was working in New York at ABC so I walked down 66th Street into Central Park and I just sat there thinking, “wow, I’m going to be sitting in the park for a living because I’m not going to have a job.” Then, I went through the process [of trying to figure it out]. I think when things happen that you can’t comprehend, you go through the “woes and whys” is what I call it. You know, woe is me, why me. Then, I said [to myself], “I’m not one to stay down. I’m a pretty positive person and if there is a way though this, I can do it. If no one sees it, then it won’t be a problem.” That’s when I started covering it up with makeup.
Did you lean on faith in any way? Did something bigger than you pull you through this?
I always think that we are all connected and because of that we need each other. I couldn’t do anything without someone else, and for me it was my loving sister, who has always been there for me. I respect and love her immensely. Those are the kinds of things that I say I believe in. I believe in love and you know, a lot of people say God is love. So, I guess in an abstract way faith [helped]. But, in a more concrete way I look to others and the inspiration that I gain from [them].
At what point did you decide to share your story with everyone abound you?
I was thinking I was just another guy who had his own struggle. I didn’t really look at it as anything bigger than that. Then, I was talking on the phone to a kid [with vitiligo] and he said “would you show your face on television?” I asked why, and he said, “if you show people what you look like, maybe people will treat me differently.” So, I said sure, of course. If I can help one kid out, that’s an easy thing for me to do. I wasn’t going to lose my job. My boss had been asking me to tell my story on the air for at least a year and a half before that. I just thought she wanted ratings, so I kept putting her off. But, when the kid asked, it was simple [and worthwhile to do].
For anyone who is listening who might just have been diagnosed with any health [issue], what is something that you would really like to share?
If a doctor gives you a diagnosis, it is not the final word. You define your life. You choose the way you want to live your life, however long your life will be. Hopefully we will all live long and fruitful lives and be able to overcome many obstacles. But, the moments we have [are] right now. The rest of this day, the rest of this hour and the rest of this minute are moments to be cherished, because life is the gift. That is the key.
What would you say to someone who is around someone [else] with a health diagnosis?
You know, that is tough one, because people handle things differently. I just want to be treated normally but I realize it’s difficult because I look different from anyone else. I don’t look like an African American specifically. My face is multicolored and I understand that. But, a lot of people are in the midst of their struggle and they are very, very sensitive. So, I know that people need compassion and empathy from each other. [But] don’t force the issue, and don’t treat the person differently either. When they are ready to talk, they will give you a hint towards that conversation. Then, [when you are] open and loving towards them, that’s when the conversation will go forward.
You say [in your book,] “the toughest person for you to change is you. It’s not easy but once you are open to rebooting your internal programming it can actually be fun to fight the war within.” How has this disease helped you change who you are?
Before, I was so consumed with all things external: Why did he talk to me that way? Why did she look at me that way? Why couldn’t I have that? Until I got this disease, I never really sat down and took a mental, emotional and physical inventory. When I did, I discovered that I am a good guy. I never thought of it, because I was so busy striving to get to that next thing.
You can’t control anyone else but you. And, it’s not about what people say to you, it’s about how you react to what they say. Once I stopped trying to elicit responses from people and stopped trying to figure out why they are acting the way they are acting, my whole program changed. My whole life changed. My whole mental and emotional attitude changed and I found what I was looking for, which is happiness.
What do you think is the most unexpected good thing that came from all of this?
It’s pretty funny. A lot of people I lost contact with have seen my story on the internet or on some TV show, and they’ve called me back. My best friend from high school, who is overseas serving in the military, called me. I am so incredibly happy that this story has reconnected [us]. That is one incredible thing that has happened.
Another [good thing] is just to see the faces of inspiration and the faces of change. A lady walked up to me at my first support group meeting here in Detroit—the support group that I started—and said “I haven’t been out of the house for two months but I came out to see you.” I had a little kid walk up who has vitiligo. He was six or seven. He was so happy to hold my hand and stand next to me. To realize that his dreams aren’t going to die because he has this disease—just seeing that realization on that kid’s face in that moment—is worth everything that I went through to get here.
What is the belief that you personally go to during times of change?
First of all, I really believe that the thing that binds us all together is the spirit of love. I always try to go back to that. The other thing that helps me is I know that I have the ability to make the very next second much different from the second that just happened.
The best thing about change is…
…you can be one thing for a lifetime, and one day get up and say, “I’m going to be different.”
What is the best change that you have ever made?
I made the change [in my mind] that what I am doing now is the best thing. And, that the next thing isn’t the best thing. Now is the best thing. And, when I changed my mindset, life became even sweeter.
For more information about Lee Thomas and the Turning White Foundation, visit www.turningwhite.com.
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