Rodney McKinley discovered he had peripheral artery disease (PAD) in 2011, when his frequent walks dissolved into searing pain. “When I lay down in my bed to sleep, I felt like someone had a blowtorch under my toes,” he says.
McKinley underwent groin bypass surgery – with 32 staples – and two more bypass grafts in both legs. Her pain eased for a year. But then it came back.
“I ate more pain relievers than food,” says McKinley, 64, of Johnson City, TN. He has tried many treatments, including hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which uses pressure to fill your blood with oxygen to help heal wounds.
When nothing helped, “my doctor finally said all he could do was amputate.”
McKinley had a leg amputated and spent 4 weeks in hospital and in rehab. “I came home and tried to stay positive and get on with my life,” he says.
It took him a month to recover enough to equip himself with a prosthetic leg. But by then his leg had contracted and wasn’t straightening enough for him to wear his prosthesis.
During this difficult time, McKinley found support “out of the sky.” His ex-wife traveled from England for a surprise visit and stayed. She took McKinley for physical therapy three times a week until he recovered. In January 2020, McKinley was able to take his first steps without his wheelchair and walker – almost 9 years after being diagnosed with PAD.
“She was so instrumental in getting me to walk again,” he says. Now he can walk anywhere, sometimes even without his cane.
“The main thing that keeps me going is trying to stay positive.”
Kay Smith, a nurse practitioner who lives in the west of Scotland, has traveled across the UK to train healthcare professionals in wound care. Excruciating thigh cramps prevented him from driving. Soon after, even walking became too painful. After a flurry of doctors and tests, Smith learned she had PAD and ended up in a wheelchair at the age of 54. Her doctors canceled an angioplasty to restore her blood flow when they discovered a blockage in her aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. On top of that, Smith was allergic to pain relievers.
“Over the next few months, I was in a very dark place,” she says. “One thing no one discusses are mental health issues: anxiety and depression and isolation from illness. Then COVID-19 struck.
Then, thanks to high technology, Smith discovered a way to bend his desperate reality.
She found a doctor who prescribed virtual reality (VR) for chronic pain. This technology creates an immersive 3D computer generated environment that allows you to explore and even participate in activities using helmets and sometimes special gloves to help complete the illusion.
“He provided me with the equipment, and within hours, I was pain free for the first time in years,” says Smith. “I had been an avid scuba diver and had dived all over the world. So, once immersed in my VR world, I went scuba diving. It gave me strength in that it reminded me that I was still me. In a way, it actually made me me. “
She still uses virtual reality on a daily basis to help manage pain.
Smith then tapped into an extensive online PAD support network called The Way to My Heart. She began to share her expertise on wound care. “At the same time, the healthcare team helped me develop a mentality of strength. I decided not to feel sorry for myself and to start fighting, ”she said.
A year and a half later, she had endovascular treatment to clear her blockages. Five weeks later, she was fully upright again, dancing with her husband at a wedding and registering about 9,000 steps a day.
“There can be life with PAD,” says Smith. “But it’s a new and adapted way of life.
The joy of not winning
Kevin Morgan is a trained veterinary pathologist who, at 78, still competes in Ironman races. But, since 2010, he’s been doing them with an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) stent, which limits the amount of blood that reaches his legs when he works out.
The Carrboro, NC resident’s PAD symptoms first appeared around 2015. “I have noticed problems with numbness in my feet during the marathons,” says Morgan. At first, he thought the pain and lack of circulation meant he wasn’t training enough. “I never linked it to PAD.”
Her doctor diagnosed PAD during an annual stent exam with an ankle brachial index test, which compares blood pressure in the arms and legs.
The stent has put “absolute limits” on what it can do, Morgan says. There is always the danger that running could dislodge the stent, so he changed his training. He rides a custom bike designed to reduce flexion in his hips. He traded the rower for an elliptical trainer. He did flips in the pool.
“The PAD and AAA have given me more empathy for people in the same boat,” Morgan says. With a change in mindset, “You can always turn things around to make them a good thing. I think the real thing is to talk not about you, but about other people.
Morgan also practices meditation and reads a lot. He has also written numerous self-help books, including How to train to age.
He also found joy in taking it slow. “A man has to know his limits. So you learn to appreciate what you get, not what you have lost due to the inevitable health changes associated with aging.” Plus, he adds, “You meet the nicest people at the back of the pack.”
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