When 5-foot-2 Dee Burlile stepped into a Seattle restaurant last month, some nearby guests immediately caught her eye.
"Standing next to them, I thought, 'OK – these guys are definitely not high school players, and I highly doubt they're college players," she said.
It then occurred to the Idaho native that there was a preseason game in Seattle Thursday, and the men a few feet from her were Vikings players. Before she knew it, Burlile was starting up a conversation with the group that included defensive teammates Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Mackensie Alexander, Anthony Barr, Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen.
"I just kind of get right in there," Burlile said, laughing. "It doesn't really quite matter my size – I'm not really shy."
While the Vikings caught Burlile's attention, she also drew theirs when they noticed she was using a walker to maneuver around. One of the players inquired about her condition, and Burlile was happy to explain that she was in Seattle to receive treatment for Scleroderma, a progressive, chronic, connective tissue disease that causes hardening of the skin and internal organs.
"When people ask me, I appreciate that they're brave enough to ask me what's going on – most people won't, because they want to avoid the question," Burlile said. "I felt kind of honored that they dove right in there and asked, and that was kind of flattering to me.
"The fact that they respect me enough to listen to what I had to say was equally important to me," she added.
Oftentimes, patients with Scleroderma go years before being diagnosed. Burlile struggled with symptoms, various treatments – including four back surgeries – and numerous hospital stays over a long period of time. At one point, Burlile had a seizure while at home with her three young children. It was then that she realized something was significantly wrong and started the search for a diagnosis, which she received within this past year.
Burlile said it's often easy to feel isolated and be overcome with self-doubt and discouragement, but the experience with the Vikings players left a major impact on her.
"It's [incredible when] people make the effort and take the time to care and really go out of their way to make you feel like you're still in this game," Burlile said. "I feel so honored that they listened and took the time with me."
As a lifelong football fan who grew up cheering for the Boise State University team, Burlile has come to have such an appreciation for the game and the athletes who play it. She's part of a Scleroderma advocacy group back home in Idaho, and the group coined the phrase "We've got skin in the game" as its slogan. The members who are fighting to find a cure for Scleroderma often use the game of football as their frame of reference when raising awareness about the disease.
"I admire that [the players] put in time and effort and have to put in the agility and strength to do what they do," said Burlile. "I also have to have the agility and strength to fight this ugly disease."
Burlile is continuing her efforts this week on Capitol Hill, where she will join the Scleroderma Foundation to urge members of Congress to support the Scleroderma and Fibrosis Research Enhancement Act (H.R.366). The bipartisan bill seeks to coordinate and advance research in fibrotic illnesses, using Scleroderma as a prototypical condition for research due to its manifestation throughout the body.
Burlile, who's "absolutely a Vikings fan" even more so than she was before, said that her interaction with the Vikings boosted her morale and motivation to continue fighting for a cure.
"Every time I look at the picture taken with the Viking players, it makes me smile," Burlile said. "I think to myself that with this kind of defense standing with me, my days fighting Scleroderma seem a little easier."
The Scleroderma Foundation helps people with Scleroderma – and their families – cope with the disease through support programs, physician referrals and educational information. To learn more about Scleroderma or help raise awareness and research funds, visit **_www.scleroderma.org_**.