Mokena Man's 'Lymphedema Journey' Made Easier by Rehab Therapists
When he’s not teaching middle school, Jerry (last name withheld) loves to golf. Up to three times a week at times!
So, when arthritis made it increasingly difficult to do that, Jerry, who lives in Mokena, couldn’t wait to get total knee replacement done. A friend a few years, older than his 58 years, had it done and felt great.
But not long after the surgery in March 2019, Jerry started noticing some swelling in his knee. The surgeon said that was normal and could last three to six months. After six months, the knee swelling was down, but the swelling in his leg started to spread to his calf and up his thigh to the groin. And it was painful.
Several months later, another doctor told Jerry he had lymphedema. According to The Mayo Clinic, Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one’s arms or legs.
Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment, according to Mayo. It results from a blockage in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling.
During Lymphedema Month in March, Jerry wants to make sure people are aware of Lymphedema, noting Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates shared her story of dealing with it following cancer surgery. She notes in the story that even many doctors are unaware of Lymphedema.
“Thank God for the new diagnosis!” Jerry said. “Could there be a solution for this medical problem rather than just icing the knee? Unfortunately, no, it's chronic! But there is therapy!”
Jerry was referred to the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. Silver Cross and the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab partnered to expand post-acute physical medicine and rehabilitation services in Will County. This partnership designates Silver Cross as the only healthcare facility in the area with this breadth of services to treat a broad range of conditions.
Under the guidance of therapists Anna Kopacz and Temitope “Temi’ Asein, Jerry said his leg swelling began to improve. Therapy consisted of a gentle skin massage and leg wrappings to help move the blocked liquid through his body.
Jerry already was familiar with Kopacz, who helped him with his knee rehab, so he was glad to be back. Unfortunately, therapy sessions were put on hold for several months last year due to COVID, but he was able to return by July. Jerry was glad, and not only because the healing therapy would resume.
“My visits with Anna and Temi were more than therapy. Most importantly, the time I spent with my therapists helped develop a friendship with two professional people who are wives and moms. My sessions included not only education in Lymphedema, but an exchange of pleasant stories regarding our families.
“If I was to have to go through this condition, who better to go through it with but people I consider friends, Anna and Temi.”
Asein, who works specifically in the lymphedema clinic, said she usually sees cancer patients dealing with the aftermath of having lymph nodes removed and radiation therapy. Those patients will have a 50 percent chance of developing lymphedema, she said.
Sometimes it is genetic without any secondary cause, or, as in Jerry’s case, lymphedema can occur following a non-cancer-related surgery.
When they first saw him, Jerry’s right leg was 28 percent larger than the left, due to swelling, where the normal difference is about 5 percent.
Asein said she will gently massage the skin from the point of the blockage – the thigh, in Jerry’s case – toward a release area to get the lymph fluid back into system. She’ll use a compression wrap to keep the pressure on following the massage.
Therapy will last until there is a noticeable reduction in swelling, she said. Then, they send the patient home with exercises, compression stockings and a leg pump to help manage the chronic condition. They encourage patients to come in for a check-up every four to six months to see how things are going.
Sometimes, she said, they’ll need to resume three-times-a-week therapy because of increased swelling due to weight gain, or maybe slipping up on the maintenance.
For whatever reason he would return, Jerry said he’s always glad to see his friends again on what he calls, "my lymphedema journey.”
Initially, Jerry said, he felt sorry for himself. Then, he realized with COVID and other health issues affecting so many people, he’s pretty lucky.
“I just drag a leg around. I don’t have it bad at all, especially with my friends from Silver Cross.”