By Alison Trinidad

The Newport Beach reading specialist suffered through eight episodes of pneumonia and two hospitalizations before discovering that chronic acid reflux was destroying her lungs. She consulted with expert physicians across the nation who all pointed to the same Keck Medicine of USC surgeon: Steven R. Demeester, MD.

“I heard his name so many times,” Jo, now 72, says. “So I decided I should see him. He conducted the necessary tests and said I was really sick. But my insurance company said it would not allow me to receive the surgery at USC that I so desperately needed. Thus, I started writing letters to them.”

Over 11 months, Jo wrote 99 letters with return receipts, all rejected. The gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) worsened: She slept sitting up and ate very little to avoid intense pain. Then, one day at work, her lunch came up through her nose as she bent over to empty the trash.

“I was running out of time,” she recalls. “Right then, I had made a decision to pay for the surgery myself, but my attorney said we’d write one more letter.”

That letter said she was going to have the surgery to reinforce the connection between her esophagus and stomach — a transthoracic Nissen fundoplication — regardless of the insurance company’s decision to cover it. It also said the insurance company would be sued whether she died or lived. The letter was sent on a Wednesday, and an approval came on Friday. Jo had the operation at Keck Hospital of USC the next week.

That was December 2003. Jo’s recovery was difficult because her condition was left untreated for so long, but she believes the surgery was the right decision to make. She has since taken up walking and eats healthier. In 2010, she had a second procedure to further strengthen her esophagus-stomach connection. Keck surgeons performed it laparoscopically, which shortened her hospital stay. Her asthma has subsided. She continues to tutor children, teens and adults at the Skibby Learning Center.

“Jo’s condition was certainly more advanced when she came to USC,” Dr. DeMeester says. “At that point, no one had connected the dots that the reflux was causing her problems. Her swallowing ability remains poor, but, by and large, she’s doing quite well.”

Jo says she feels like a new person.

“Life has its challenges, but we need to pursue excellence in as many areas of life as we can,” Jo says. “I go to the theater and opera, travel a bit and attend church. I read a lot. I have been a Laker season seat holder for nearly 50 years and attend most games. I still own a learning center, and I continue to work daily with children who learn differently. I have a life that is very rewarding. I am so grateful for the gift of renewed good health.”

To help other patients suffering from GERD and its complications, Jo has given more than $135,000 to the Esophageal Disease Center at Keck Medicine of USC. Her most recent gift allowed the center to purchase a high-resolution impedance manometry system, which can help explain why a person has trouble swallowing and, ultimately, lead to earlier and more specific diagnoses that may result in fewer surgeries and better long-term outcomes.

USC is one of only a few motility centers in the country to offer testing with this technology.

“This machine will not help me,” Jo says. “But it has been determined to have great potential for others. It is so pleasing to me to think I will help people I do not know. It’s not how many years you live, but what you do with the years that you have. My heart is filled with gratitude, and, thanks to Dr. Demeester, I still have time to give back and connect with others.”

For more information about the USC Esophageal Disease Center, call (323) 442-5831 or visit http://www.keckmedicine.org/esophageal-disorders/. To make an appointment, call 1-800-USC-CARE (800-872-2273).