Unless you regularly shop for toys at Romp in LA, you’re most likely to recognize Kellie Martin as Lucy Knight from ER, or (and now we’re dating ourselves) as ‘Becca’ Thatcher from Life Goes On. The Los Angeles-based actor, toy store owner, and mom to 7-year-old Maggie is the latest in our Inspired Moms series, sponsored by ViaCord. We caught wind of Martin’s dedication to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) and chatted with her about her role as spokesperson and how she uses her popular association with the medical community via her role on ER to spread the word.

StrollerTraffic: Tell us about AARDA, and the work you do there.
Kellie Martin: AARDA is the only nonprofit health agency dedicated to bringing a national focus to autoimmunity, the major cause of serious chronic diseases. I became involved with AARDA in 2000, shortly after my sister passed away from lupus (in 1998). She was 19 years old and as far as we knew, perfectly healthy until this sudden, devastating illness. We saw many doctors before she received a diagnosis and treatment, but it was too late. She died that July.

ST: Kellie, that is so tragic. Would the outcome have been different if she had been diagnosed with lupus sooner?
KM: Yes. Heather had the classic textbook case of lupus. Unfortunately, it was missed. Once we started to read about it, we thought, ‘I could have diagnosed it.’ But she saw seven different doctors who had no idea.

ST: So you sought out AARDA?
KM: I wanted a constructive way to deal with my grief. I became involved with AARDA because it deals with all autoimmune diseases as opposed to just one; an organization that deals with all autoimmune disease has a better opportunity to fund research that can lead to better treatments and ultimately a cure.

ST: You must miss your sister terribly.
KM: We were three years apart. It was a really sudden thing. I remember I was worried it could be leukemia so I was relieved when they said lupus. But it can often be incredibly bad, which it was for my sister. To see her suffer when she was 19 years old and should be at her healthiest was the worst. There’s a really big hole that can never be filled. It’s especially hard around the holidays. During the holidays, I get out all the Christmas ornaments we had when we were little, with our names on them. It doesn’t get easier, but you function a bit better with time.

ST: Our hearts go out to you. Do you worry about your own health, and your daughter’s health?
KM: Definitely. I’m a woman in my childbearing years, and that is the group this disease targets. Usually it’s women aged 16 to 45. It also runs in families. Maggie is 7 years old now. When I found out I was having a little girl, I was really upset. I had to get through that. I’m very careful with her. I’m manic about getting her a ton of sleep, eating organic food as much as possible and taking vitamin D. Health is a big priority in our house. I don’t want it to happen to my little family.

ST: Well, now that we understand what brought you to AARDA, tell us a little more about your role.
KM: I’m their spokesperson. I became involved with AARDA to improve public awareness. If my family had known what autoimmune disease was, we would have known what questions to ask. I’ve lobbied on Capitol Hill. I’ve also spoken at the United Nations on women’s health, and I’m involved in fundraisers, and public service announcements.

ST: Are more people being diagnosed with autoimmune diseases as awareness grows?
KM: Yes, I think so. Lady Gaga has lupus. Some people like her have come out and said, Yes, I’ve got this. I’m not sure if more people are being diagnosed or if they are just finding more ways to talk about it. People are taking to Twitter and Facebook with their symptoms, questions, answers, thoughts on doctors and treatments. There are virtual support groups to let people know that they are not alone. That is also what I hope to accomplish as AARDA’S spokesperson. I want to make people feel like they are not alone in this.

ST: Why is it that autoimmunity is rarely discussed as a women’s health issue, despite the fact that many of the 30 million people affected are women?
KM: Perhaps it’s because autoimmune disease is such a large category of disease. But the bottom line is that it’s a major women’s health issue to which the medical community and our government need to pay attention. It’s a strain on the healthcare system and patients with autoimmune disease will likely be on medication their whole lives. Autoimmune disease is big, expensive, and debilitating.

ST: How can other moms make a difference?
KM: Knowing the facts, the symptoms, and being on the look-out for these things is really important. If your family or someone you know has been diagnosed or is experiencing symptoms, arm yourself with facts and get involved with support groups. Empower yourself as a mom and follow your instincts.

ST: That’s good advice, which we’ll take to heart. On a brighter note, tell us about living in LA with a young family.
KM: I grew up in LA so it’s home for me. My husband is from Montana; it’s not as easy for him. He grew up with horses and a lot of wide-open space, but I think LA is fantastic. I like to say it’s a salad full of different cultures mixed into one beautiful bowl. I love my daughter hearing Spanish every day, and being exposed to different cultures. We live in a woodsy area, two minutes from the city. It’s lovely.

ST: How do you like spend time in LA with your daughter?
KM: In college I was an an art history major, so I’m a museum junkie. I want to expose her to great art—to be inspired by nature and art. We love the LA County Museum of Art, and the hands-on Noah’s Ark exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. I also love taking her on great hiking trails around here. She loves bugs. She’s a girl that grabs a cockroach and says, Look it’s beautiful!

ST: Ohmigoodness. That’s rare! And what about Romp? We hear you were a customer at the toyshop for many years, then took it over (in 2011) when you heard it was going to close.
KM: I’m involved in every aspect of Romp, from picking the items to photographing most of them, and writing the product descriptions. We have beautiful handmade things, and classic toys like blocks, wooden cameras, and gorgeous unique, kid-sized accessories like headbands. Romp is all about play, imagination, creativity and fun!
ST: Sounds like we should make a holiday shopping pit stop at Romp. Thanks for sharing, Kellie.