Local School Teacher Receives Life-Changing Treatment Through MU Joint Health Program

Donna Gerling

One year ago, teacher Donna Gerling sought help for the severe knee pain hurting her quality of life. She was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees. It's a common joint problem that results in pain, swelling and the inability to do many of life’s activities. Her doctor said that while a total knee replacement — a surgery to replace her damaged joint surfaces with medical-grade metal and plastic — might be a good option for her, she was not yet a candidate because she was overweight.

“I was devastated,” Gerling said. “I cried a lot.”

She said her knee pain was so severe that affected her ability to keep up with her job as a teacher.

“I remember sitting at my desk at school planning one of my few trips out of the room for the day, making sure I did as much as I could while I was gone, such as go to the restroom, make copies, call a parent, talk to a teacher, find supplies,” she said. “All because I did not know how many trips I had in me that day.”

Gerling knew something had to change, and when that same physician recommended MU Health Care’s Joint Health Program, she decided to give it a try. The Joint Health Program combines group exercise designed for patients with joint pain with dietary counseling provided by a registered dietitian, physical therapy and health behavior counseling. It can help patients achieve their goals for addressing their pain, improving function and opening up treatment options to enhance their quality of life. The six-month program is guided and supervised by an integrated team of health care professionals who work together to help each individual patient, with the option for patients to re-enroll at the end of the six-month period.

After a year, Gerling says the Joint Health Program revolutionized her life.

“It has made me put taking care of myself as a priority,” she said. “Exercise has become a way of life for me now.”

Gerling has lost more than 20 pounds during her year in the program. That is 10% of her starting body weight. But more than that, her knee pain has decreased, her balance, strength and function have improved. Most important, Gerling feels like she has her life back.

“It has made me so much more confident and able to do the things I want to do and live the kind of life I love,” she said.

With her newfound skills, she has a plan in place for continued success. She has made exercise part of her daily life.

“I am up to two hours on my bike now, and I can actually get in and out of the kayak!” she said.

Gerling said the best part of the Joint Health program has been the people.

“All of the staff I have worked with made it a priority to get to know me, not only from a health perspective, but as a person,” she said. “I feel valued, cared for and understood.”

She said the team has been incredibly accommodating, especially with her busy life as a teacher and graduate student. She credits Renee Stucky, PhD, the Joint Health Program health psychologist, with helping her implement the important changes recommended by the team.

“She keeps me focused on my goals and reminds me constantly to celebrate my success. Dr. Stucky has empowered me,” Gerling said. “Through her I have learned to love myself and see myself as deserving of all good things life has to offer.”

Gerling said she is just getting started and encourages others considering joining or already participating in the program to not give up.

“Even when you are tired and it hurts … celebrate your successes, learn from your failures, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable or to laugh at yourself," she said. "Use the staff and their knowledge to help you reach your goals.”

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