Local school teacher receives life-changing treatment through MU’s collaborative health program

A year ago, 54-year-old teacher Donna Gerling sought help for severe knee pain that was affecting her quality of life. The doctor she saw diagnosed her with osteoarthritis in both knees, a common joint problem that causes pain, swelling and an inability to perform many of life’s activities. The doctor said that while a total knee replacement, an operation to replace her damaged joint surfaces with medical-grade metal and plastic, might be a good option for her, she is not yet a candidate because she is overweight.

“I was devastated,” Donna said. “I cried a lot.”

Donna said the pain in her knee was so bad that it affected her ability to do her job as a teacher.

“I remember sitting at my desk at school and planning one of my few exits from the room for the day, making sure I did as much as possible while I was gone, such as going to the bathroom, making copies, call a parent, talk to a teacher, find supplies,” she said. “All because I didn’t know how many trips I had in me that day.”

Donna knew something had to change and when that same doctor recommended MU Joint Health Program, Donna decided to give it a try. The MU Joint Health Program combines group exercise designed for patients with joint pain, dietary counseling provided by a registered dietitian, physical therapy, and health behavior counseling to help patients achieve their goals for managing their pain, improving function, and opening up treatment options for improving their quality of life. This six-month program is led and supervised by an integrated team of medical professionals who work together to help each individual patient, with the option for patients to re-enroll at the end of the six-month period.

After a year, Donna says the Joint Health Program has changed her life.

“It made me make self-care a priority,” she said. “Now exercise has become a way of life for me.”

Donna has lost more than 20 pounds during her year on the program, which is 10 percent of her starting body weight. But more than that, her knee pain has decreased, her balance, strength and function have improved, and most importantly, Donna feels like she has her life back.

“It’s made me a lot more confident and able to do the things I want to do and live the life I love,” she said.

With her newfound skills, she has a plan for continued success. She has made exercise part of her daily routine, often taking her kayak with her on day trips.

“Now I’m up to two hours on my bike and I can actually get in and out of the kayak!” she said.

Donna said the best part of JHP is the people, referring to the integrated multidisciplinary care team she has worked with throughout the year.

“All the staff I’ve worked with have made it a priority to get to know me, not only from a health perspective, but also as a person,” she said. “I feel valued, cared for and understood.”

She said the team has been incredibly accommodating, especially with her busy life as a teacher and graduate student. While each professional on the team gave Donna valuable tools and skills, she credits Dr. Renee Stuckey, JHP Health Psychologist, with helping her implement the important changes recommended by the team.

“She keeps me focused on my goals and constantly reminds me to celebrate my success. Dr. Stuckey empowered me,” Donna said. “Through her, I learned to love myself and see that I deserve all the good things that life has to offer.”

Donna said she is just getting started and encourages others who are considering joining or are already involved in JHP not to give up.

“Even when you’re tired and in pain… celebrate your successes, learn from your failures, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable or laugh at yourself. Use the staff and their knowledge to help you achieve your goals.”

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