Jana K. Sheets
May 26, 1974 – January 6, 2010
Founder, Lymphangiomatosis & Gorham’s Disease Alliance
I have lymphangiomatosis.
I was 6 when I broke my leg while playing with some friends in the neighborhood. It was an accidental kick and if it had been anyone else’s leg it would not have broken, but what we didn’t know was that my bones were different. I was taken to the ER and with a scan; they found a hole in the bone where the break occurred. They immediately thought it was Cancer, but that was very quickly and very thankfully ruled out. I say thankfully because no one would want to have cancer, but sometimes today, I wish cancer had been the diagnosis. At least if that had been the case they would have been able to treat it, there would have been doctors interested in and actively researching it. They ended up assuming it was fibrous dysplasia and told my parents it wasn’t a cause for concern, put me in a cast and sent me home – with no follow up.
Two years later I broke my leg again in the same spot when I fell off a jungle gym practicing gymnastics. When they x-rayed the area, they found the hole and compared it with the previous one and found it had grown. This raised a red flag so they did a full skeletal survey and found I had holes in practically every bone of my skeleton. They varied in size, but it was obvious there was something very wrong. The doctors caring for me had no idea what it was and were not equipped to diagnose something rare so they sent me to an orthopedic specialist. I was put on restriction activities that could cause me to fall and break something. This meant – no running, no gym class, no sports, no bikes, and no more gymnastics. Despite our attempt to keep me from fractures, I began breaking and cracking ribs on a regular basis. Coughing, hugging, sleeping on the floor at a slumber party – these were things I had to be careful of.
The local doctors that were following me felt that I needed to be under the care of a team at a University hospital – they didn’t feel the first diagnosis was correct anymore so they felt that I would get better care having something rare at the university hospital. At this point all of the holes were growing and new ones were developing. My new doctor decided to biopsy one of the cysts (as they called them). It was inconclusive – because the cyst was filled with lymphatic fluid nothing else. So he then biopsied 2 other bones. The results were the same. It clued them in to the lymphatic system, but still nothing definitive was decided upon. He began reaching out to medical experts in orthopedic oncology. Over the years it was thought I had fibrous dysplasia, eosinophilic granuloma, lymphangiomatosis, hemangiomatosis, or Gorham’s disease. Around the 5th grade I had a test that would confirm my diagnosis of lymphangiomatosis called a lymphangiogram.
At the time we thought it was just a bone disease. My doctor told me there were no treatments, but that he hoped when I stopped growing the cysts would stop growing.
When I was a freshman in high school I went to my bone doctor for a broken rib. During this visit, when they x-rayed my ribs, they found a collection of fluid around my right lung. I was sent immediately to a thoracic surgeon so they could remove the fluid. I was oblivious to the gravity of what was happening or where this would eventually lead – I thought I only had a bone disease. A week later I went back to the doctor that had tapped my lung and they x-rayed my chest. The fluid collection (called a chylothorax) had come back and it was worse. I was 14 so don’t remember much of what I thought or asked about it, but now I know it was the disease – the disease I thought was just a bone disease – was now in my lungs too. They put me in the hospital and over a period of 2 months several procedures – some experimental surgery and life-threatening – it stopped.
I went through the rest of high school and my senior year and put the freshman year episode behind me. I never returned to the lung doctor and my breathing felt fine. I continued with my annual visits to the bone doctor. My senior year, I slipped on a stair and broke my arm. This was a very large hole that I would eventually end up having stabilized with a metal rod and plate a few years later. There was some good news amongst it all, I’d stopped growing and the holes stopped their progression.
I graduated High School, attended college for a few years and then moved around a bit. I was in another period of “remission” I called it because there were no active problems. In my early 20’s I moved to Florida. I was working in retail as a store manager for a clothing store and living a very “normal” life. I realized one day that my breathing was not quite as good so went to the doctor and we found that I’d developed a fluid collection on my left lung. This time I knew what to expect. I was admitted to the hospital and I was very lucky that the procedures they did were successful on the first try. I’ve since learned that many patients that experience this symptom don’t survive. I survived it twice.
It was after this procedure that my lungs slowly began to fail. I don’t know how quickly it happened or why. Unless a person is an athlete – a runner or someone that really works out hard will not notice that their breathing isn’t as good until they’ve lost a good amount of their lung function. That is what happened to me. Since I was never allowed to be physically active because of my bones, the only time I would realize I was out of breath was when we’d walk up to the beach and I thought I was just out of shape. In addition, I was not seeing a pulmonary specialist on a regular basis to monitor my lungs. By the time I was 28 – after a series of symptoms and events, I learned that my lungs were diseased beyond repair from the lymphangiomatosis and that I would need a transplant to live. I chose Duke because of their record – they do more transplants than the other centers and are known for taking rare cases. We didn’t know if they would take me though because they had never and knew no other center that had ever performed a surgery on someone like me.
There were many obstacles though – my ribs were an issue as they had all fractured at one point and would likely fracture again during the procedure. I had additional issues relating to my disease – lymphatic fluid in by abdominal cavity.
We relocated to NC in Feb 2004 and on May 11th I got my new lungs. It was a really long and difficult surgery I’m told, but I came through it. I had a terrible and long recovery, but after 4 months I was released from the hospital. I was still on oxygen and my lung function was not much more then it was before the surgery. They hoped I would eventually not need the O2, but I’ve never came off.
Jana lived nearly six years after her transplant. She dedicated those years to building the Lymphangiomatosis & Gorham’s Disease Alliance so others suffering from these diseases could find and support one another while searching for doctors who had treated other cases and advocating for research.
For more than twenty years Jana never knew another person with lymphangiomatosis or Gorham’s disease. Through the Alliance she met dozens of others, many of them children afflicted with the diseases and their parents. She spent the last years of her life building a community that continues to grow and carry on her work.
In May of 2009 Jana and her husband were advised to enter hospice care as there was nothing more the doctors could do for her. Feeling she had more time, Jana declined at that time. Then in October 2009 Jana wrote to a friend whose daughter died from lymphangiomatosis in September: “I have some not so good news on my own front. I think you know my health has been deteriorating for a while now…Tuesday morning I woke up feeling especially bad. O2 sats in the 80’s sometimes lower. I then spiked a high fever of 102. I thought I was getting the flu – we’re not sure but I’m very congested and lungs are wet…I do not want to die in the hospital…we immediately called for Hospice – I feel it’s time or getting very close to it. I…am hoping and praying the infection goes away and I can make it through the holidays…I may be seeing your little girl soon – I feel a little less scared knowing there’s someone up there I know.”
Jana died January 6, 2010, two weeks after Christmas, at home surrounded by her family. She was 35 years old.