Back in 2013, stand-up comedian and actor Eddie Barojas, then 36, was receiving growing recognition and opportunities such as a three-day shoot on the popular CBS sitcom Mike & Molly.
“All of a sudden, everything changed; my life just took a hard left,” said Barojas, now 42.
A few days after wrapping his appearance on the show, he developed severe scrotal lymphedema, a buildup of fluid causing swelling of the genital area.
In a matter of weeks, the lymphedema swelled to almost 50 pounds. For six years, Barojas was mostly confined to a bed.
“I couldn’t walk; I couldn’t wear clothes,” he said. “It completely interfered with my daily life.”
Barojas sought help from several providers to treat his condition.
“I stopped counting after seeing about 35 specialists,” he said. “I could never get a direct answer as to what caused it and what would make it go away. Until I finally met the people at Keck — I don’t know why I met them so late.”
Surgery as a first step
Last year, Barojas saw Leo Doumanian, MD, associate professor of clinical urology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, who was able to develop a treatment plan.
Though Barojas still doesn’t know what caused his lymphedema, the treatment plan required removing it. Doumanian performed the first of two surgeries in February of 2018, removing about 25 to 30% of the lymphedema. The surgery was so extensive, it took Barojas a year to heal.
In May of 2019, Doumanian and his team performed a second surgery, removing the remaining lymphedema.
“He basically freed me of this thing I’d been carrying around for six years,” Barojas said.
Though the surgery was a success, Barojas was left with extensive wounds, as well as the damage the mass had done to his body over time. A few days following his procedure, he was admitted to Keck Medicine of USC’s Inpatient Acute Rehabilitation Unit for an intensive rehab regimen to help regain his independence.
“They wanted to work with me because they knew I’d been bed-bound for six years,” Barojas said. “I had no endurance — I could barely stand or even sit. They wanted to get me back into my life again.”
Intensive therapies bring about optimal results
The three-week inpatient program included a combined three hours of occupational and physical therapy per day, as well as care from other medical professionals, including lymphedema and wound-care specialists.
“Eddie had a huge team — that’s the amazing thing about this unit,” said Ross Sugiyama, lead physical therapy student for Barojas. “The nurses, doctors, social workers and other providers work together to take care of patients around the clock. When you’re in the hospital, the only thing you want to worry about is getting better. Whatever stress we could take off him would help his recovery in the long run.”
While the team treats a plethora of diagnoses, including post-transplant patients and those with a range of neurological and orthopedic conditions, Barojas’ case proved unique.
“I’d never seen anyone with Eddie’s specific condition, and he’d been struggling with it for some time,” said Jenna Hankard, PT, DPT, instructor of clinical physical therapy at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and lead physical therapist for Barojas. “But Eddie is also really young, vibrant and resilient. He was so determined and had so much energy to put toward his rehab — that juxtaposition was really unique to work with.”
Barojas’ physical therapy sessions included exercises to build endurance and strength, as well as interval walking, plank exercises to improve his core and cardiovascular strength and step-up exercises geared toward walking up and down stairs.
“He had really functional goals,” Sugiyama said. “He wanted to be able to walk on his own, so he could get back into the community and do the things he loved to do, like seeing friends and visiting his father.”
Much of the work also focused on balance, which Barojas found highly helpful. “Whenever I stood up, I was always wobbly because the excess weight [from the lymphedema] changed my gait and posture,” he explained. “I’d walked hunched over and bowlegged, so when they finally removed the mass, it was like my body didn’t know what to do anymore.”
The physical therapy team created novel training situations designed to help Barojas’ body adapt as the swelling continued to subside after surgery.
“As the weight of the edema was changing, Ross did a great job of giving Eddie strategies to react and catch his balance, exposing him to things he wasn’t exposed to before, so muscle memory could take over,” Hankard said.
The care team gives Barojas a final nudge
Over the course of a few weeks, Barojas made huge strides — from walking a distance of 50 feet to walking around the 500-foot unit and going up and down stairs.
“He made a lot of gains, and it all had to do with his work ethic and determination,” Sugiyama said. “He was so motivated; it was inspirational to work with him. He’s a guy who would do anything to get back to where he was.”
His team of providers also wanted to get Barojas back on stage.
“When he was in the hospital, a video of his stand-up was getting really popular on YouTube,” Sugiyama said. “It felt like his career was still there. He just had to get back into it.”
As a special send-off, the team asked Barojas to perform a short stand-up routine for patients and providers. To draw a crowd, they created flyers and turned the dining room into a little café.
Barojas used the opportunity to work on new material.
“I didn’t want to do old jokes; I wanted to write new jokes for the medical field,” he said. “Everyone was there, and I had no idea how it would go.”
Barojas soon had the whole room laughing.
“I got chills,” he said. “To tell jokes and get that feeling again, to start feeling normal again — it was really emotional.”
For Sugiyama, the routine was a huge success.
“It was really funny, but not only that, he walked in with a walker and stood up the entire time,” he said. “It was his moment, and he did amazing.”
Now at home, Barojas continues to focus on getting stronger, eating well and losing weight. He also plans to return to the stand-up stage and hopes his providers will again be in the audience.
“I’d love to invite them to a real show at a real comedy club — to see me back up there and know that they’re the reason,” he said. “They are amazing people that truly motivate you and care about you; they are angels willing to go above and beyond.”
— Jamie Wetherbe