After Ellen Van't Hof survived a bilateral mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation she thought the worst was behind her.
And then she noticed her right arm was becoming swollen. The verdict: lymphedema, an accumulation of lymphatic fluid. The culprit: the removal of 21 lymph nodes and radiation on her right side as part of the treatment for her cancer.
Van'tHof, a Calvin College dance professor, has a bachelor's degree in art from Calvin, is a lifelong seamstress and the daughter of an engineer and inventor.
Now she has her name on a patent and a product that could help numerous lymphedema patients around the world.
When she was diagnosed with lymphedema she got further bad news: she would need an hour a day of physical therapy for four weeks - essentially an arm massage to move fluids back into the lymphatic system. And she would need to wear a compression sleeve during the day and a series of bandages on her arm at night for the rest of her life.
Soon after she began scheming about ways in which to improve her situation; specifically she began to look for an alternative to the bandage regimen prescribed for all lymphedema patients, a regimen she grew tired of in very short order.
She began to think about a permanent sleeve to replace the bandages. She designed it in her head, she says, and one day she looked for some material among her piles of fabrics that might serve as a sleeve. She found some twill, with a bit of lycra, and determined that it would do the trick. And then she sewed a sleeve that replicated the gradient pressure of the bandages. She took it to her therapist and he was impressed. It could, he said, substitute for the bandages.
Van'tHof rejoiced. But she did more than rejoice. She brought her work to an entrepreneur named Phillip March, head of a Holland-based medical engineering company called Doctors Orders (March and Kuipers already had been collaborating for several months on sleeve prototypes). He applied for a patent with Van'tHof's name listed as "inventor" and now the company is producing and marketing Van'tHof's night sleeve. Already Van'tHof's physical therapist has sent some 20 patients to the company for the product, whose advantages over wraps are numerous.
"It takes about two seconds to put on the sleeve," says Van'tHof, "while the bandages take a good 15 minutes with help. For people who live alone, I don't know how they manage the wraps. The sleeve also is thin, flexible and smooth against the skin. I knew it couldn't have pressure points or seams on the inside. And it's machine-washable and dryable."