At age two, Emily Wegmann, now 19, of Elmhurst, Ill., was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) by her pediatrician. This condition, which affects approximately 50,000 children in the U.S., can cause inflammation, redness, swelling, warmth, and joint pain. JRA can limit mobility and cause permanent physical damage to any joint in the body.
In Emily’s case, JRA affected every joint, especially her hips, causing pain and making it increasingly difficult to walk, sit down, and keep up with friends. Her doctor prescribed steroids and other medication, but the steroids caused a condition called Legg-Calve-Perthes disease in her left leg. This condition causes limited blood flow in the ball of the hip joint and the top of the femur. To treat this, Emily’s orthopedic physician drilled small holes into her left femur to try to stimulate the blood, but it was unsuccessful. Following that, her physician tried a procedure that injects a special type of foam into the hip joint to create a cushion between the ball and socket.
However, by the time she was 10, she was bone-on-bone in her left hip joint. Doctors did their best to provide pain relief, but by middle school, Emily developed an uneven leg length, which caused more pain. Her gait caused her to become unbalanced, eventually causing her knees, feet and back to also become painful. She couldn’t get in and out of a car comfortably, navigate steps and used a walker or wheelchair for outings.
“It was hard because I was so young to be in constant pain,” Emily explains. “I couldn’t do a lot of things with my friends. I had to use a walker.”
When Emily was 14, the family decided that a higher level of care was needed to improve her quality of life then and into the future. Her doctor presented her with several options, including a joint fusion or a total hip replacement. The family researched both procedures and investigated specialists from all over the country experienced in treating this condition. During that research, they discovered Dr. Craig Della Valle, a joint replacement specialist at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush who was eager to help her. He recommended a total joint replacement as the best course of action.
“Emily is the youngest patient I have performed a hip replacement on and that’s why the decision to proceed forward with surgery required much discussion,” explains Dr. Della Valle. “Her anatomy was quite complex, further complicating the decision-making process. However, given her disability as well as actual erosion of her hip socket, we decided with her and her family to move forward.”
The Wegmann family agreed with Dr. Della Valle’s recommendation and Emily successfully underwent surgery at Rush University Medical Center on her left hip. She noticed a change almost immediately.
“I could go places without a walker,” she says. “I gained confidence. I gained weight. I walked normally and, most importantly, I didn’t feel judged.”
She got her drivers’ license and enjoyed shopping for clothes for the first time. Previously unable to do any physical activities, she took up badminton, biking and walking.
Several years later, because pain also developed in her right hip, Emily underwent a second hip replacement by Dr. Della Valle. Again, she was amazed at how quickly she became pain-free. She recovered and went on to enjoy her freshman year at the University of Iowa.
Today, two new hips later, Emily has no trouble working her summer job at a fashion retailer which requires eight-hour shifts on her feet. She just returned from a family vacation to the Turks and Caicos where she enjoyed activities like snorkeling. This fall, she’s looking forward to returning to campus as a sophomore and walking to class alongside her friends. She’s excited to enter the nursing program and one daycare for patients like the many nurses and health care providers who have cared for her along her journey.
Emily credits her family, friends, and the great treatment she received from Dr. Della Valle’s team with her sunny attitude and positive outlook on her future.