Finding the Right Doctor Got Her Moving Again

For eight years, Gale Fisher, was troubled with pain when she went for walks. “The pain began in my lower back and made its way down my legs. It was so extreme, I could barely walk,” explains Fisher.

The pain started when she lived in northern California. She went to several doctors who thought she had a back problem, most likely a narrowing of the spine called spinal stenosis. But nothing they suggested seemed to help. In fact, the pain was getting worse and taking its toll, while keeping her from the activities she loved doing.

“For eight years, I was missing out on my life. So, I made the decision to get to the bottom of it myself,” Fisher explains.

Number one symptom: Claudication
Finally, Fisher, now living in Seattle, went on the Internet and began searching, looking for symptoms that matched her own. She found a symptom called “claudication,” meaning to limp, and it was caused not by spinal stenosis but by a potentially much dangerous condition, called peripheral arterial disease or PAD.

In most cases, PAD is caused by atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries that flow from the heart to the tissues and organs of the body, the same process that narrows and clogs the coronary arteries of the heart and causes heart attack.

Not only did Fisher have the symptoms, she had the risk factors, including one of the most serious: although she had quit 17 years before, she had been a smoker in the past. “It all fit — the symptoms, the risk factors, all of it,” she says.

Diagnosis: Peripheral artery disease
She went to her doctor and asked to be screened for PAD. An ultrasound test confirmed her suspicions.

The main artery to her right leg was completely blocked and the artery in her left was partially blocked.

She went to a vascular surgeon in Seattle, and he recommended a surgical procedure to bypass the blockages. Her recovery would likely take weeks, she was told.

Finding the right doctor for PAD
Fisher balked. She was reluctant to undergo such a difficult operation. Then she was referred through a friend to Dr. Benjamin W. Starnes, a UW physician at Harborview Medical Center and chief of the Vascular Surgery Division.

The treatment: Endovascular surgery
Starnes is an internationally known expert in endovascular surgery, a surgical technique that makes it possible to restore blood flow in blocked arteries by slipping a small device into the blocked blood vessel through a small incision.

“After meeting me and seeing my test results, the first thing Starnes said was, ‘I can’t wait to help you,’” Fisher recalls. Her blockages were perfect for this minimally invasive approach.

Fisher went into the hospital, had the procedure and went home the same day. Everything went perfectly, but Fisher was reluctant to go for a walk for several days.

Finally, a friend confronted her, says Fisher, “She cut to the heart of the matter. ‘I know why you don’t want to go for a walk,’” she told me flatly. “‘After eight years, you’re afraid of being disappointed. Afraid of having the same failed experiences as before.’”

“When I couldn’t deny it, she simply said, ‘Gale, put on your shoes.’

So we walked. And we walked. And we walked, and we walked, and we walked.”

The first step in feeling reassured you have a healthy vascular system is to get a vascular risk assessment. Schedule an appointment today by calling 855-520-5151.

Symptoms of PAD

PAD can occur in many arteries of the body, like those that travel to your head, arms, legs, kidneys or stomach. While many people don’t have warning signs, some blockages will restrict blood flow to the legs, which causes symptoms like the ones Gale Fisher experienced.

  • Pain, numbness or heaviness in the legs that subsides when resting
  • Cramping in the buttocks, calves, feet or thighs that subsides when resting
  • Weak or absent pulse in your legs or feet
  • Pale or blue toned skin
  • Poor toenail and leg hair growth

In men, PAD can also cause erectile dysfunction. If you have these symptoms, a screening might be right for you — and could help you avoid serious complications such as coronary artery disease and stroke.