Paramedic Jo Cleworth is enjoying being a “completely different person” after undergoing surgery for a chronic condition that left her suffering physical and psychological effects.
And she says she is “so, so grateful” to TASC, The Ambulance Staff Charity for contributing towards the cost of her travel for the treatment that has fundamentally transformed her life.
Jo, a 38-year-old mother of two from Leigh in Lancashire, had endured bullying at school because of the size of her legs. But it wasn’t until the beginning of 2015, and following a 10-year on and off struggle with the eating disorder bulimia, that Jo discovered she was suffering from lipoedema, a condition that causes an abnormal build-up of fat cells in the legs, thighs and sometimes arms.
Jo, who now works as a practitioner at a walk-in centre in Leigh, said:
“I was bullied at school because of the size of my legs, even though I was fit and ate healthily. I tried dieting to try to reduce the size of my legs and arms but that resulted in me becoming bulimic on and off for 10 years from the age of 15.”
After eventually being treated for bulimia at the age of 25, Jo realised that restrictive dieting was having an adverse effect, and has since maintained a healthy, moderate eating regime. She played netball, enjoyed trampolining, and took part in a variety of exercises in order to reduce the fat in her legs. But it made no difference and, in fact, her legs simply grew larger.
“I could never understand why my legs and arms got bigger and bigger no matter what I tried. It affected me psychologically and socially because I was embarrassed to go places. And then it got to the point where I was just getting more and more tired. I just didn’t have the energy and my legs felt so heavy all the time. I still wanted to do stuff but my body wouldn’t let me. And it was just harder work to exercise.”
Jo, who worked for North West Ambulance Trust from 2001 to 2016, says it was a lot of effort and more tiring to keep up with her family, which consists of her husband Ian, an HGV driver, and their two sons, now aged 5 and 11.
“I begrudgingly went on a diet with a friend in November 2014 but within a few weeks I started feeling symptoms of restrictive dieting with unhealthy thought patterns. During the same period, I went on the internet looking for specific exercises to lose weight on my legs, or even tone them up, and came across a condition called lipoedema. I immediately said ‘that’s me, that’s me’, so I stopped the diet and went to my doctor who referred me to the long-term condition nurses at Wigan Hospital who confirmed I had lipoedema. Once I had that diagnosis I was so relieved that it wasn’t my fault. It also dawned on me that it was just going to get worse, that my legs were going to get bigger and bigger.”
Following her diagnosis in January 2015 Jo was prescribed compression garments to reduce the long term effects in her legs. She continued to wear them for the next couple of years, but then decided to have liposuction to remove the fat instead as she was aware of the pathological degeneration lipoedema can have.
“I just wanted a better life,” explained Jo. “I was still pretty young and this condition had tormented me for so long. I wanted to be without it, to have it taken away. And I wanted more energy so I could enjoy time with my family. I knew I was a healthy person but I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Jo was referred by her health insurance to the NHS clinical lead for lipoedema at St George’s University Hospital in London to be told she was unable to have tumescent liposuction on the NHS because she did not meet specific debilitating criteria. Instead she was recommended to a private clinic in Lubeck, Germany, which Jo discovered is a worldwide recognised treatment centre of excellence for lipoedema, having carried out her own extensive research.
Her health insurance helped with the cost of her treatment and fortunately someone at the insurance company referred her to TASC which agreed to provide Jo with a grant towards her travel costs to Germany. Now, having completed her third round of surgery in August this year, Jo says: “It’s totally gone, I am a completely different person now.
“I was so, so grateful to TASC because we didn’t have the funds to travel for my treatment. I couldn’t believe how much help they actually provided. It helped me so much. It had been a really traumatic time for me, and even though I was desperate to get rid of it, I still felt guilty to ask for help.”
The improvement to Jo has been so dramatic that she was able to complete the Manchester Half Marathon in October this year.
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“That was a proud moment for me,” she concluded.