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Dannenhauer’s surgery a success

July 29, 2018

LOS ANGELES — Karen Dannenhauer couldn’t sleep Tuesday night.

Earlier in the day, she initialed and signed eight pages of documents that told her all the possible ways she could die or be disfigured during a life-changing surgery to shrink the 52-year-old’s oversized, lymphedema-stricken left leg.

At the same time, it felt surreal. Last summer, doctors turned her away the day before the surgery, asking her to lose 30 more pounds to reduce the risk of blood clots.

But after 36 years of battling lymphedema, Dannenhauer’s leg was ready to go this time.

“It became real to me after going through those documents,” the longtime Kankakee preschool teacher said. “It was scary reading everything that could go wrong and putting my initials next to it. I was worried about the worst. I did not sleep at all.”

The next day, she was in the operating room, getting four liters — about 7 pounds — of cellular sludge sucked out of her left hip and upper thigh during the long-awaited surgery she hopes will enable her to run and wear jeans again.

She was awake for every second of it with her iPhone playing music through a hospital stereo and doctors chatting with her throughout the surgery.

“I was draped, so I couldn’t see what was going on,” Dannenhauer said. “I sure could feel it. My doctor gave me lots of local shots. I could feel the liposuction starting. It hurt at times, and he would inject more local. He said he never saw someone going through as much local as I did. I was burning through it.”

Dannenhauer watched the bloody, sludgy fluid run out of her body. The surgery left her sore and bruised, but the pain was nothing compared to some of her worst days.

She walked around the operating room after the surgery with a lighter left leg. Since she lost 60 pounds in the two years before her surgery, doctors think they only need to do one more surgery to remove cellular sludge from her lower left leg and the rest of her right leg.

“It’s very reassuring,” she said. “I did not know how I was going to take care of the co-pay and flying back and forth. If it’s only one more instead of two more, I might be able to do it. That’s incredible.”

If all goes according to plan, she will be back in Los Angeles for her second surgery during Christmas break. And she potentially could get both her knees replaced next summer.

Now, her newest challenge is to convince her doctors to let her return to Kankakee in time for the upcoming school year. She also plans on walking in the Tortoise and Hare race during the Herscher Labor Day Celebration.

“It’s such an important bonding time to meet the kids and their families right when school starts,” she said. “It sets the tone for the school year, and I would be sad to miss that. You can’t get it back.”

Her mother, Isolde, who is with her in Los Angeles, believes her daughter will make it back to school in time.

“I have always loved her tenacity,” Isolde Dannenhauer said. “It will help her heal soon.”

While in the operating room, Dannenhauer reflected on her journey toward shrinking her legs.

She was diagnosed with lymphedema after the shoes she bought for her junior prom did not fit her as a teen. She has watched her legs swell up for 36 years. She has continued to walk 5K races, cherishing her mobility. She has continued to teach even though she could have gone on disability.

Dannenhauer raised $30,000 through a GoFundMe page and donations throughout Kankakee County. She lost 60 pounds. She had her first surgery. And one of these days, she will be able to shop for jeans again, ride her horse and cut time off her 5K. And there will not be as much pain.

“I am making progress,” Dannenhauer said. “I am not there yet, but I am excited that I have come this far. I didn’t do it alone. It was everyone in Kankakee and around the country who donated to get me here. It’s amazing to me that it finally happened.”

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