A surgery that occurred over seven years ago may have been the beginning of lymphedema, a condition that Ron now lives with.
Immediately after his surgery to repair a large abdominal aortic aneurism (a bulge in the aorta in the abdomen), Ron noticed a difference in the size of his legs, with some swelling in the right leg. It was not clear at that time, or even later, what the swelling was coming from. Gradually it got worse, and eventually Ron also noticed tightness in his legs. He was admitted briefly as an inpatient at GMHC in March of 2021 for cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection).
A few months later, in September, Ron developed cellulitis again, along with venous stasis ulcers on his legs, which are open wounds that “leak” excess protein-rich fluid from the body. After working to control the swelling and sores with Unna boots to promote healing of his venous stasis ulcers for several months, Ron’s primary care provider, Dr. McCaw, decided to refer him to a wound care specialist for more extensive treatment; however, there was a two month wait to be seen. Because GMHC’s Physical Therapist Kimberly Franzen, PT, DPT, CLT, had been recently certified to treat lymphedema, Dr. McCaw decided to refer Ron to her. That decision has been life-changing for Ron.
Lymphedema can occur as an abnormality at birth, primary lymphedema, or secondary lymphedema that develops after an injury, surgery or radiation treatment. Lymphedema is a protein-rich fluid buildup in the arm(s) or leg(s) that causes swelling, discomfort or achiness in the extremity and decreased mobility of the joints that can make it very hard to move your limbs to complete daily activities. Lymphedema symptoms include increased tightness and size of the arm or leg, skin changes including texture and color and increased difficulty with use of the arm or leg with daily cares such as dressing. Lymphedema increases the chances of recurring infection. At GMHC, we treat lymphedema to help reduce the size of the arm or leg, heal wounds, improve health of the skin and improve the patient’s quality of life. Because there is no cure for lymphedema, it is very important to treat it and learn to manage the symptoms.
Franzen began therapy with Ron in December of 2021 and treated both of his legs. She used all the techniques learned during her certification in Complete Decongestive Therapy for lymphedema, including manual lymph drainage, to aid in his healing. The results were amazing—the wounds were almost gone in three days! To maintain these results, and further decrease the lymphedema, intensive treatment began at 5 times per week for two weeks, and then tapered to 2-3 times per week for the remainder of his treatment. Franzen used multi-layer short stretch bandages to wrap Ron’s legs, which provided greater compression to reduce the lymphedema.
Each case of lymphedema is very different, and so is the individual treatment plan. Usually, the course of treatment is from 1-2 months. In Ron’s case, he experienced a few setbacks, and needed just over two months of intensive therapy. During this time, he also learned some valuable lessons in the precautions he needed to take to ensure his health. Franzen reported that during his therapy, Ron was mobile and doing all that he could to care for himself.
Franzen’s certification consisted of learning the full CDT (Complete Decongestive Therapy), which includes not only performing manual lymph drainage (MLD) to reduce the amount of fluid build-up, but teaching/ educating the patient how to apply compression bandages or garments, exercise, nail & skin care, and other self-cares to assist with overall management of their condition. The successful treatment of lymphedema includes a lifetime commitment to control and manage the symptoms.
Ron described the difference it made for him to have the swelling more controlled in his legs, “Before, when I was using the exercise bike, my legs could only go for about 7 minutes, but after my course of treatment, I was able to go for about 20 minutes,” and, “now when we are walking around while shopping, my legs don’t really get tired, just a little heavy—so I stop to rest my legs for a few minutes and I’m ready to go.”
Following the intensive therapy, Ron received instruction on transitioning to self-care, where he would monitor his own situation and only need to receive treatment if conditions would get worse again. Ron said that after living with this condition, he now knows what signs to watch for that would require a visit to his health care provider.
Franzen taught Ron and his wife how to bandage his legs on the days he didn’t have treatment. Because the course of treatment was effective in controlling the lymphedema, an accurate measurement was taken for custom compression socks, which he will regularly wear during the day, along with a custom-fit Velcro garment at night.
When asked what he looks forward to being able to do again, Ron replied, “I hope to walk the course when I go golfing again. It will also be nice to wear dress pants instead of sweatpants, and regular shoes instead of extra-wide ones!”