Nancy Lukee

Nancy Lukee, of Hoffman Estates, works with therapy director Darryl Jenkins at Lee Manor rehab center in Des Plaines last week. When Lukee made a trip to the emergency room for treatment of a gangrenous finger, doctors discovered she had an 80-pound cyst in her stomach. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

For years, Nancy Lukee put on weight, but tried not to dwell on it.

A doctor blamed the bulge in her abdomen on a hernia, but said it didn't need to be repaired. And since Lukee, 56, wasn't in pain and didn't have health insurance, she never got another opinion.

But when Lukee stepped into a Park Ridge emergency room last month for treatment on the gangrene eating at her finger, she discovered the real culprit behind the gain: an 80-pound cyst growing in her stomach.

The trip to the emergency room at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital opened Lukee's eyes to a slew of other health problems too. Besides the noncancerous cyst, doctors found she had severe anemia, ulcers in her stomach, and blood clots in her lungs and legs.

"Us who are uninsured, sometimes we make do with what we have," said Lukee, of Hoffman Estates, as she recovered in her hospital room, attached to an IV pole, on a recent day. "I just wish I knew better to go elsewhere."

About 10 years ago, Lukee, who is 5-foot-6, was in her father's tool shed when she felt a strange pain in her abdomen after lifting a heavy box. At the time, she weighed between 160 and 170 pounds, she said.

She complained about it to a doctor, but he chalked it up to a small hernia that didn't need mending, Lukee said.

After that, the pain went away. But several years ago, just before she lost her job in 2009, Lukee's stomach began to stick out, as if she were pregnant. And then it grew and grew some more.

Other people noticed her belly too. Some would come up to Lukee, asking when her baby was due.

"That was not good to hear. That would actually hurt my feelings," said Lukee, who doesn't have any children.

Again, she saw the doctor, who said the hernia was getting larger, but wasn't an immediate problem, according to Lukee.

Even if she wanted surgery, she didn't have health insurance to help cover the cost. She was already paying out-of-pocket for the doctor's visits.

Lukee accepted the changes as a part of life. But life got harder. Soon, she could only lie on her back when sleeping and needed to use a walker and a cane to get around.

The weight gain took a toll on her emotionally too. Lukee said she started changing in the dark and wearing only black clothes. Though she tried to avoid the scale, she believes she weighed 280 pounds.

At the end of last year, Lukee began receiving Social Security disability benefits, which included health insurance.

She headed straight to Advocate Lutheran's emergency room in September when she noticed the tip of her right index finger turning black.

Right away, doctors ordered blood tests and a CAT scan to look at her chest area, said Dr. Joubin Khorsand, Lukee's surgeon.

The scan led them to the mass, called cystadenoma, attached to Lukee's right ovary. They also learned vasculitis, a blood vessel disease that stops blood flow, caused the gangrene on her finger.

Soon after, Khorsand performed a 21/2 -hour surgery to remove the fluid-filled cyst. He called the cyst's size "very uncommon" and said people shouldn't always blame weight gain when only one area of the body grows larger.

"The cyst was overlooked and it got to that size," he said.

On top of shedding the 80-pound cyst, Lukee has lost an additional 20 pounds, which she attributes to a loss of appetite. She also recently had the tip of her finger removed.

Though she's weaker than she used to be, Lukee gains strength by exercising and climbing stairs when she can. Currently, she's recuperating at a Des Plaines rehabilitation center and getting treated for her other ailments.

As she waits to be released, Lukee says she's looking forward to wearing jeans again, walking her dogs, Emma and Oscar, and improving her health. She said she hopes uninsured people, or even those who fear doctors, seek medical help when something pops up.

"You can have lurking conditions there you don't know about," she said. "I didn't feel any symptoms … that's the scary part of it."

jmdelgado@tribune.com