I like to call myself a Medical Adventurer. It’s just another way of saying that I’m a 26-year-old with a lot of medical bills because, well, my doctors almost never know what’s wrong with me and I end up getting lots of tests.
My first “adventure” came when I learned that the Can-Can dance should actually be called the Shouldn’t-Shouldn’t. You know how the dance goes, I’m sure. Jump up, lifting one leg in the air, and then switch legs. It sounds simple enough, but if you’re a girl in fourth grade and you spend more time giggling with your Girl Scout Troop than focusing on jumping properly, you might land on your ankle sideways. Sure, I had a pretty good sprain, but what was really odd was that my ankle was so immediately swollen that my X-rays were difficult to read for the technicians. The sprain healed, but the swelling only got worse. We tried ice and elevation and went to so many doctors I can’t even remember them all. Nine months into this process, my Mom and I had a routine. Take Sarah out of school, bring her Gameboy so she has something to distract her from all the “I don’t knows” from her doctors, and go home with one less ounce of hope. On the last day of our search, the doctor’s assistant at Children’s Hospital took one look at my leg and said, “Oh, it sounds like you have lymphedema. Mind if I bring in a few doctors to help us confirm it for you?”
This was equally the most terrifying yet beautiful sentence my mother had ever heard, but I got a quarter from every doctor that came in the room that day, so I was happy. Lymphedema is a lifelong disease that currently has no cure. The most common cases are called ‘secondary’ because they come about after a surgery that removes lymph nodes (like treatment for Breast Cancer) or an injury that damages the lymphatic system. I have lymphedema praecox which means that I was born without lymph nodes in the groin area of my right leg, but the swelling didn’t show up until I was about nine years old.
“More Americans have lymphedema and lymphatic diseases than AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer’s disease—COMBINED.” (lymphaticnetwork.org)
Having lymphedema means that my right leg doesn’t filter the fluid out like it’s supposed to, so it is consistently swollen. From junior high through college, my right leg had about 20-30 pounds of excess fluid more than my left leg. It was the first thing that people noticed about me, and so it shaped a lot of my identity growing up. I’m fortunate to say that no one ever really picked on me, and I actually got a lot of laughs out of the silly questions and jokes my friends and I would say about my leg. We even named my leg Rupert because we talked about it so much it needed its own name. But it wasn’t always easy. Every 7-10 days from ages 20-22 my leg got infected, as anything with stagnant fluid buildup would. I spent two years apologizing to professors and relying on roommates to pick me up off the floor or carry me to the bathroom.
Our God is one of healing and the one who deserves all of our praise because he can take the ugly painful parts of our lives and transform them into something that benefits his kingdom.
Needless to say, my spirit was pretty low toward the end of college, but that’s not the end of my story. It’s not even the point. The point of my story is to reveal my need for God and my admiration for his children when I couldn’t find the strength to power through on my own.
My mother wasn’t a stay-at-home mom. Her employers were dedicated to helping her sort out how to get me to and from doctor offices for nine months of searching and then countless times afterward as we started the minimal treatment options that were available at the time. My teachers from age nine-22 were incredibly supportive and instrumental to the woman that I am today. They not only helped me keep up in classes, but they prayed for me, encouraged me, and helped me grow in my passions. My friends in college brought me soup and ginger ale when I was sick, and they carried me when I physically could not walk. They pushed my wheelchair when I fractured my femur in my right leg (did I mention I’ve had several adventures?), and made jokes when I needed to laugh.
“Everyone has something, this is just yours. You can do this.” –Nurse Jeanne Rachner, Crystal Springs Elementary.
“I just got a new job as a lifeguard but I’m supposed to bring my own floatation device, can I borrow your leg for a day or two?” –Preston Loomer, Whitworth University
I spent the summer of 2012 working at a camp and prayed a lot. “Lord, heal me. Father, take away this pain. God, save me.” I’d seen healings happen and knew that they could, but our God has a sense of humor sometimes in the way he shapes us for so much more than we can imagine. I still have lymphedema, and I probably always will, but after that summer, God put on my heart to change what I do, not just what I think. So I changed my diet, exercised more, and changed my major to one with less physically stressful demands. One day I looked up and realized it had been months since my last infection. My friendships only got stronger as I could actually spend time with the people I loved without crying in pain the whole time. My relationship with the Lord became one of less doubt that he’d ever heal me, and intensified to one of trust that his healing doesn’t have to look like what I think it should.
Those of you who have met me in the last two years may not have even noticed my one swollen leg, which, by the way, feels super weird that you do not. I work really hard at taking care of myself and I still have pain when my compression garment bunches up in one spot, but I’m also a lymphedema advocate on social media to help bring together the millions of people worldwide with lymphedema, and help them to come out of the shadows and know that they are worthy of love and happiness.
Our God is one of healing and the one who deserves all of our praise because he can take the ugly painful parts of our lives and transform them into something that benefits his kingdom. He can take my pain, my fear, and my depression and turn it into a ladder to help someone else out of the pit. He can take my declining health and my anger and turn it into a story that shows his light through the muddiest of windows. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
My God has recovered the joy of the girl who loved giggling with her Girl Scout Troop. He created me as a lover of his children and uses that in sending beautiful humans into my life to guide me where he wants me to go through their stories, their support, their laughter, and sometimes through how they disagree with me. My recovery story didn’t sound like the miraculous healing of a broken leg or the defeat of addiction, but those stories empower my journey just the same, and besides, if we all had the same story, life would be pretty boring.