Walking a New Path

Cleveland Clinic stops crippling leg pain

Rita Ebert

“I feel like I got a second lease on life,” says Rita Ebert, 48, who three years ago was using a cane to walk short distances and felt such excruciating pain in her legs that she could barely walk. Trips to the mall with her daughter were no fun. “I would sit in the middle of the mall and wait for her,” Ebert says.

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Ebert had been suffering for most of her life—given dashed hopes that medications would work and had doors repeatedly closed on her for four decades as countless doctors came up with no answers for her debilitating leg pain.

It began when Ebert was in grade school. She was born with vascular disease and diagnosed at age nine. “My parents took me to the pediatrician—my legs would swell like balloons,” she says. “Finally, the pediatrician said, ‘We need to get her to a research doctor because we can’t figure this out.”

Ebert endured years of experimental medications—none of them worked. Her pain could only be described as “life altering.” She was constantly in and out of the hospital for treatments—none of them successful. And it was a pain that no one really understood or that Ebert could fully explain. We know what cancer means and its treatment courses. We know what heart disease means and typical means of treating it. But there was no script or precedent for Ebert’s lifelong illness. And so she continued to seek care and feel the heavy disappointment of yet another possibility of a cure lost.

Amazingly, Ebert did not allow her disease to control her life, at least on the surface. Friends of her four sisters, who have grown up supporting Ebert during her trauma, would ask, “How is Rita doing?” They would see Ebert and could not believe she was suffering. That’s because she hid it so well, always aiming to look and feel her best despite the mind-numbing circumstances.

“I always tried to put my best foot forward,” she says, adding that this attitude continued throughout her life. As a mother, she continued to be strong for her daughter, who was born with her own medical issues. She got dressed, made herself up, went to work, was there as a mother every step of the way despite the desperate pain she felt. She popped Vicodin like peppermint candies to get through the day and functioned on the medication. Her bathroom cabinet looked like a prescription drug store. Nothing worked. “I would have gone out of my mind with the pain—it was that hard,” she says. After an entire life of dealing with unimaginable pain, Ebert didn’t know any other way to life. This was her reality. And it seemed, after years of disappointing doctors’ assessments, that nothing was going to change.

Then, Thanksgiving of 2008, Ebert’s condition began to deteriorate.

The Ebert Family

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“I couldn’t keep anything down—I was constantly throwing up, and the pain was bad,” she relates. She was admitted to a local hospital and eventually transferred to Cleveland Clinic main campus, though she thought this was the beginning of the end.

Daniel Clair, MD, chairman of the department of Vascular Surgery at Cleveland Clinic, reviewed Ebert’s case. On top of Ebert’s disease, she was dealing with abdominal aortic stenosis, meaning she had little blood flow to her organs or either of her legs. “He told me, ‘I think I can help you,’ and I just shrugged it off because I had been told that for so many years and then doctors would later tell me I was born with the disease and it was something I had to live with,” Ebert shares. She was not optimistic and preparing to say goodbye to her loved ones.

Ebert left Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Clair asked her to call his office for an appointment. Ebert was skeptical, but her husband pressed, “Why don’t you just call?” Ebert would not. “I didn’t want to set myself up for another disappointment,” she says. “I thought, I’m just going to ride the course and accept my fate.”

Then, Ebert received a personal phone call at home from Dr. Clair. He wasn’t giving up on her. He had reserved an appointment for Ebert and asked her to come to Cleveland Clinic again. “I resigned myself to do it,” Ebert says. She, her husband and her older sister, Margaret, spent an enormous amount of time in Dr. Clair’s office. Ebert went with three pages of questions, and Dr. Clair patiently answered each and every one of them. The last question, most important question was: “Are you sure I’m going to survive this?” Dr. Clair said, “I’m telling you I can help you, and you don’t have a choice, you’re circling the drain.” Dr. Clair believed Ebert would benefit from a multi-vessel vascular bypass surgery.

After undergoing testing to ensure that her heart was strong enough for the surgery, Ebert underwent the lengthy procedure. Three separate synthetic grafts were placed in her to allow blood to flow to her legs, stomach and kidney. Before the surgery, Ebert was surrounded by more than 15 family members and friends who came to support her, and her husband and daughter. Ebert was prepared to not come out of surgery alive.

But the highly complex surgery was a success. Ebert stayed in the intensive care unit for five days following surgery and recovered at Cleveland Clinic for another five days before returning home.

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Recovery and rehabilitation took over six months, with constant support from family and close friends. Today, Ebert feels like a completely different person. She can walk without horrendous pain shooting up and down her legs. She is getting the first taste, in her whole life, of what it is like to function comfortably. And she is amazed.

Ebert recalls early on in the journey when a primary care physician told her quite bluntly, “I thought that one day you would be in a wheelchair with no legs.” Ebert says she just wanted to make it to her daughter’s high school graduation. She thought she had reached the end. Now, after surgery, she has a whole life ahead of her.

Ebert sings the praises of the staff at Cleveland Clinic, particularly in Dr. Clair’s office. “It is a miracle,” she says. Dr. Clair has been incredibly accessible, she adds. “I don’t know how many times I have emailed him directly with questions and he emails me in the middle of the night,” Ebert says. “You don’t get that type of caring everywhere.”

Ebert’s life has changed completely. “I go walking every day,” Ebert says. “Dr. Clair came along, saved my life and I love him for that.”


The Ebert Family

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