Next week, the longtime Kankakee School District 111 preschool teacher will have her third surgery in a year to reduce the size of her legs, which have swelled during the past 30 years because of lymphedema.
“It will be weird because I will no longer get pictures of me with one big leg and one little leg,” Karen Dannenhauer said. “It will be interesting not having that as the first thing my students notice about me.”
Dannenhauer was diagnosed with lymphedema after her shoes didn’t fit during her high school prom. The 53-year-old preschool teacher has coped with the disease through daily maintenance and teaching.
“She never let it influence her work,” said Karen’s mother, Isolde Dannenhauer, while wiping tears from her eyes. “Teaching kids is near and dear to her heart. I know she has had dark times, but in general it is amazing how she has dealt with it. I am really proud of her.”
Dannenhauer’s quest to shrink her legs has been a long roller coaster. She went to Los Angeles two summers ago only to get rejected the day before her scheduled surgery. She responded by losing dozens of pounds and shrinking her leg on her own.
She had her first surgery last summer and the second during winter break. Through those surgeries, she has had 13 liters of cellular sludge vacuumed out of her left leg, in addition to her hips.
Her right leg has about five to seven liters of cellular sludge in it. That will be the focus during next Wednesday’s surgery.
Despite the surgeries, Dannenhauer still is adjusting to her more “normal-sized” leg. She has bought a few pairs of jeans and plans on buying knee-high dresses after her next surgery.
“I have this strange body dysmorphia thing where I think my leg is larger than it really is,” Dannenhauer said. “So, I still make allowances for a big leg. I was at a banquet, and the table was full. They said, ‘We’ll just shove a chair in here. You’ll fit.’
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, I can’t.’ Then, I sat down and fit. I didn’t think that could happen. Before, I always had to make sure I had room for my leg. Now, it’s just a leg. It’s not like another person I am dragging around.
“It is definitely easier to walk. I don’t have nearly the swelling pains I used to have all the time. When I wear my skinnier pants and catch a look in the mirror, I think it isn’t me. I just doesn’t seem like it is me.”
That wouldn’t have been possible without the community’s support. When uncertainty about insurance clouded her hopes of having the surgeries, the community raised money through a GoFundMe page and fundraisers. Strangers even sent letters with cash to her classrooms.
“I want to thank everyone who made it possible,” Dannenhauer said. “It’s incredible how the community has come together to help me get this done. When you hear all the negative things people say about Kankakee, this just erases that and shows how many positives there are here.”
Dannenhauer and her mother leave for Los Angeles today. Dannenhauer plans to be back in her classroom before the upcoming school year begins Aug. 21.
“My sincerest hope is to be back at school,” she said. “That is my plan. The first day of school is so important. I have to be there.”