I was seven months pregnant when a woman in a children’s toy store stopped me while I was browsing a few books.

“I know what you have,” she said very loudly, looking at my legs that were bandaged up to my knees in seven layers of gauze and blue medical boots on my feet.

“You just had a bunionectomy.”

By this point, I was used to the gaping stares and people randomly telling me how sorry they were or asking what had happened.

Even the few children who had inquired about my situation had been more polite than this.

My mind raged with the “I can’t imagine why you would think a pregnant woman would have elective surgery” retort.

Instead, I told her, “Actually, I have lymphoedema.”

Confused, she quickly displayed what I like to call the “lympha-what” face.

So I tried to explain. I’ve found moments like this are best used for educational purposes.

Most people, unless they’ve had breast cancer, haven’t heard of lymphoedema. I had no idea myself until I was diagnosed.

I was five months pregnant.

A common disease

The lymphatic system is an important ghostlike network of protein-rich fluid that helps remove toxins in the body.

It is essential to one’s immune system. It is the cleanup garbage crew of vessels and nodes, like toilet plumbing that helps you flush everything out of the body.

The disease won’t kill you; it is just extremely painful, and there isn’t a cure.

Lymphoedema, breast cancer, Dawn Reiss, Kathy Bates, swollen leg, leg swelling, Star2.com

Reiss, seen here with her baby, is lucky that she was diagnosed quickly and had insurance that covered some of her treatment costs. — TNS

It’s like having a throbbing migraine in your legs that gets progressively worse as the day continues, while fluid drains into your limbs.

People can get it anywhere in their body.

Our skin is our biggest organ. When things get messed up, it usually is the first to shows signs.

My legs were filling up like water balloons full of toxic waste, and my body had no way to release it.

A lot of other people are suffering too. An estimated 10 million Americans have lymphoedema, according to the Lymphatic Education & Research Network (LE&RN) and Stanford University Medical Center.

That’s more than the combined number of people who have multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease and AIDS in the United States.

The US Congress has a chance to do something about this right now. The Lymphedema Treatment Act, led by Democratic Representa-tive Jan Schakowsky, would require insurance companies to pay for much-needed compression garments.

This proposed legislation has been reintroduced in the US Congress more times than I care to count.

It has bipartisan support, but it keeps languishing. I really hope this time will be different.

Expensive treatment

Lymphoedema is a disease that is diagnosed through eliminating other potential causes, like a blood clot or heart problems.

The initial physician who saw me prescribed diuretics for the swelling in my legs.

I later learned that is one of the worst things you can do because it doesn’t help with the inflammation and can exacerbate the problem.

Unfortunately, as NorthShore Medical Group’s Dr Joseph Feld-man told me, “The way we treat this disease hasn’t changed in 40 years.”

It’s archaic at best.

It’s wearing expensive compression socks that can cost US$70-US$250 (RM290-RM1,037) a pair during the day.

It’s sleeping in oven mitt-like puffy up-to-my-knees boots at night.

It’s also using a lymphatic drainage pump that encases my foot, leg and stomach like a mummy covered in brown Velcro straps and pliable fabric.

One treatment takes an hour, and I’m supposed to do it daily.

I lie flat on the bed. I usually get cold and sleepy as the lymph fluid is pumped up through my heart and into working lymph nodes to flush out the toxins.

Once finished, I immediately feel alert, refreshed.

For me, the pump and night garments make a huge difference, but each device costs US$3,000-US$5,000 (RM12,443-RM20,738), depending on insurance.

I’m one of the lucky ones. My insurance covered some of the cost, and I was quickly diagnosed in less than a year.

Those who are on Medicaid (a US healthcare programme) aren’t so lucky. Many treatments aren’t covered, which is why federal legislation is so important.

Without these essential garments, the disease can progressively get worse and spread, compounding in stages if unmanaged.

Lymphoedema, breast cancer, Dawn Reiss, Kathy Bates, swollen leg, leg swelling, lymphatic drainage, lymphatic massage, Star2.com

Manual lymphatic drainage, which is a form of massage as seen in this filepic, helps to move the lymph fluid out of the body.

Increased infection risk

Many people with lymphoedema are breast cancer patients who get this disease after their lymph nodes are removed during a mastectomy.

It happened to actress Kathy Bates, national spokesperson for LE&RN, who has said, “For me, living with lymphoedema is almost worse than having cancer.”

About 10% of us who have primary lymphoedema, which is hereditary and associated with more than 40 rare diseases.

When I was pregnant, I had to make a difficult decision: immediately enter intensive hospital treatment or wait until after the baby was born.

Without any medical studies to guide me, I listened to my gut and decided to be proactive.

I was the first pregnant patient of Jennifer Kamieniak, a lymphoedema specialist at Illinois Masonic Hospital in Chicago.

Lymphoedema, breast cancer, Dawn Reiss, Kathy Bates, swollen leg, leg swelling, Star2.com

According to Bates, seen here at the world premiere of The Highwaymen on Mac 10, 2019, living with lympoedema is almost worse than having breast cancer. — AP

Each session began with manual lymphatic drainage, a type of light touch massage.

She was careful not to rub my belly, but every time she worked, the baby moved.

He’s happy, I told her. He seemed calmer after every treatment.

After moving the lymph fluid out of my body, she wrapped my legs and feet in layers of foam and gauze to contain the swelling.

I always felt better.

Unfortunately, patients with lymphoedema are much more likely to get cellulitis, a skin infection that can kill you.

After my son was born, I got cellulitis for the first time in my caesarean section incision. It spread like wildfire. In less than a day, I had a footlong burning rash in my incision.

Even a small shaving cut is now something I have to worry about because I’m more prone to infection.

Within hours, a bug bite or bee sting can send me to the hospital with cellulitis.

It’s not something an adrenaline injection or antihistamines can help with.

Along with antibiotics, an emergency room doctor realised that famotidine – because it’s a histamine H2-receptor blocker that decreases inflammation – makes a difference, even though I don’t have acid reflux.

A series of severe reactions to bee stings prompted me to do genetic testing at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois.

They told me I was the first to get tested for lymphoedema, which later revealed two genetic mutations of “uncertain significance”.

I now must wait until science catches up to technology.

What I have learned on this journey, I already knew as a journalist.

I never stopped asking questions, and I switched doctors when I wasn’t getting the help I needed. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service