Karen Dannenhauer

Longtime Kankakee School District 111 preschool teacher Karen Dannenhauer walks through the halls of a Los Angeles area hospital Thursday. On Wednesday, Dannenhauer had her third and final major surgery on her legs, which have been plagued by lymphedema for the past 37 years.

A few days before her third and final major surgery to alleviate her lymphedema-plagued legs, Karen Dannenhauer sat down in a roller coaster at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Eight years ago, she had to abandon a trip to an amusement park after the roller coaster’s safety bar wouldn’t lock because of her swollen legs. This time, however, she went for a ride, thanks to her two previous surgeries.

“It was a miracle to me that I was able to do that,” Dannenhauer said during a phone interview with the Daily Journal. “I rode roller coasters that I never would have fit in before.”

That set the tone for the “final leg” of Dannenhauer’s 37-year journey to shrink her legs. On Wednesday, the 53-year-old Kankakee School District 111 preschool teacher had 5.3 liters of cellular sludge removed from her right leg.

Dannenhauer’s doctors believe it will be the final major surgery to manage her lymphedema. Dannenhauer had 13 liters of gunk removed from her left leg and hips during her first two surgeries.

“It has been a long journey to get here,” Dannenhauer said. “It just amazes me that the last surgery is behind me.”

Dannenhauer still is recovering from the surgery. She and her mother, Isolde, plan on leaving the hospital in Los Angeles either Sunday or Monday and returning to Kankakee on Aug. 11 to prepare for the upcoming school year.

“It’s a lot more painful than when I had my left leg done,” Dannenhauer said. “I have walked a few times, but it really hurts. But, even with my leg all wrapped up, it looks smaller than it was before. It’s amazing.”

Dannenhauer has been battling lymphedema ever since her high school prom shoes didn’t fit during her junior year. She has combated the disease by teaching and staying active, whether it’s walking a 5K race or a workout.

However, the path to her three surgeries was a roller coaster. A few summers ago, she went out to Los Angeles only to have what would have been her first surgery aborted. She responded by losing dozens of pounds and shrinking her leg.

That enabled her to have her three major surgeries during the past year. It also has prepared her to have both of her knees replaced next summer.

“It’s wonderful,” Isolde said. “She has gone through a lot, probably more than I realize. I’ve seen her happy to fit into different clothes and move better. As her mother, it makes me feel great. I am happy and thankful.”

As Dannenhauer constantly acknowledges, she wouldn’t have gotten this far without help from the local community and strangers throughout the world.

Dannenhauer has raised $31,300 in four years through a GoFundMe page. She has had donations sent to her classroom. Community members also have offered services to help her lose weight, pay for airfare and stay in California during her surgeries.

“I still have a really hard time believing people would do all this for me,” Dannenhauer said. “It’s not that I don’t think people do good things. It’s just, why for me? It’s beyond what I can comprehend. Some people who barely know me have helped in so many ways. It’s truly amazing and gratifying for me. None of this would have happened without everyone’s help.”

With the school year approaching, Dannenhauer plans on being in the classroom on the first day of class. She also hopes to walk a 5K race on Labor Day and test out her legs.

“I definitely won’t be breaking speed records, but it will be nice to walk two miles,” she said. “There are so many things I haven’t been able to do that I want to start doing. I’m anxious to see what my legs can do now.”

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