March 24, 2004
After Ellen Van't Hof survived a bilateral mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation she thought that, perhaps, the worst was behind her.
And then she noticed her right arm was becoming swollen. The verdict: lymphedema, an accumulation of lymphatic fluid. The culprit: the removal of 21 lymph nodes and radiation on her right side as part of the treatment for her cancer.
Little did she know that the diagnosis eventually would lead to her name on a patent and a product that could help numerous lymphedema patients around the world.
Van'tHof, a Calvin College dance professor who lives in Holland, has a bachelor's degree in art from Calvin. She's also a lifelong seamstress. And her father was an engineer and inventor. Add to the mix Van'tHof's unwillingness to accept the status quo and a healthy bit of fighting spirit (during her chemo and radiation she never missed a Calvin class) and you have the recipe for a great story, albeit one that Van'tHof tells with more than a bit of sheepishness.
The story began with her doctor telling her that those missing lymph nodes had caused a key change to her body's lymphatic transport capacity and that the swelling in her right arm was as a result of the protein-rich lymphatic fluid collecting in the tissues of the arm. Left untreated, this stagnant fluid could reduce oxygen in the transport system, interfere with wound healing and provide a breeding ground for bacteria.
Brad Kuipers, Van'tHof's physical therapist, gave her further bad news. She would need an hour a day of physical therapy for four weeks - essentially an arm massage to move fluids back into the lymphatic system. And she would need to wear a compression sleeve during the day and a series of bandages on her arm at night for the rest of her life. At that moment, Van'tHof admits, she cried.
But her sadness lasted only a moment. For soon after she began scheming about ways in which to improve her situation; specifically she began to look for an alternative to the bandage regimen prescribed for all lymphedema patients, a regimen she grew tired of in very short order.
"The bandages are put on after the massage," says Van'tHof, "to keep the fluids from returning to the arm. And they are complicated to wrap. They need to be tighter at the bottom and then become less tight as they go up the arm. They're also very fragile bandages. They need to be specially washed, hung to dry, rolled just so."
After a few months of this fussing with bandages, Van'tHof had had enough.
And she began to think about a permanent sleeve to replace the bandages. She designed it in her head, she says, and one day she looked for some material among her piles of fabrics that might serve as a sleeve. She found some twill, with a bit of lycra, and determined that it would do the trick. And then she sewed a sleeve that replicated the gradient pressure of the bandages. She took it to her therapist and he was impressed. It could, he said, substitute for the bandages.
Van'tHof rejoiced. But she did more than rejoice. She brought her work to an entrepreneur named Phillip March, head of a Holland-based medical engineering company called Doctors Orders (March and Kuipers already had been collaborating for several months on sleeve prototypes). He applied for a patent with Van'tHof's name listed as "inventor" and now the company is producing and marketing Van'tHof's night sleeve. Already Van'tHof's physical therapist has sent some 20 patients to the company for the product, whose advantages over wraps are numerous.
"It takes about two seconds to put on the sleeve," says Van'tHof, "while the bandages take a good 15 minutes with help. For people who live alone, I don't know how they manage the wraps. The sleeve also is thin, flexible and smooth against the skin. I knew it couldn't have pressure points or seams on the inside. And it's machine-washable and dryable."
Van'tHof says it does her heart good to know that people are benefitting from her creation.
"I was at Doctors Orders," she says, "and a patient came in who was so happy with the sleeve and so happy to be done with the bandages. She couldn't get over it. And I thought 'Thank you Lord.'"