Chris Allen, 47, used to have so much pain in both his legs that he couldn’t walk 500 feet without having to take a break. His 7-year-old daughter would get tired of slowing down to wait for him. Today, one year after his vascular surgery at Saint Luke’s, he’s now the one outpacing her.
As a diabetic and former smoker, Chris has his history of health issues. His time with Saint Luke’s began in 2018 when he was hospitalized with double pneumonia at Saint Luke’s South Hospital. After being discharged, he regained his strength but still had trouble walking.
“I started having left hip problems, and then it all of a sudden radiated down and I was getting lower left leg issues,” Chris said. “It kept getting worse, and I kept pushing through it.”
Over time, Chris’s right leg felt equally painful and it impacted his quality of life. He couldn’t jog, ride a bike, or climb ladders without needing to rest every few minutes. He had been seeing his primary care physician at Saint Luke’s Primary Care – Mission Farms for his diabetes, who referred him to Saint Luke’s Endocrinology Specialists. While at an appointment with a nurse practitioner in 2019, they discovered the tips of his toes were black, which Chris had never seen before. The nurse practitioner sent him to vascular cardiologist Matthew Bunte, MD, at Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants.
Dr. Bunte conducted an ankle brachial index test on Chris, which uses cuffs to compare blood pressure at the ankle to blood pressure at the arm, and diagnosed him with peripheral artery disease (PAD).
“It was primarily claudication, or leg pain caused by low blood flow,” said Dr. Bunte. “It’s a system of supply and demand where you don’t have as much supply of blood as you should, and your muscles need oxygen to work. When they outstrip that supply and the demand is too high, they start to ache and hurt.”
PAD is a condition in the circulatory system where narrowed blood vessels reduce blood flow to the limbs. Patients with PAD are five times more likely to have a heart attack and at three times higher risk of a stroke. If left untreated for too long, it can lead to amputation. In Chris’s case, he was at high risk of PAD because of his diabetes and smoking.
At first, Chris opted for non-invasive treatment options. He quit smoking, took medication, and exercised as much as he could tolerate per Dr. Bunte’s recommendation. When his symptoms didn’t improve after several months, Dr. Bunte performed an angiogram where he injected dye into the arteries to see through a CT scan where the blood flow went and locate the blockages. Chris’s scan showed that arteries in both his legs were 100 percent blocked.
Dr. Bunte later convinced Chris to have the blockages treated surgically. He had his first operation on his left leg in July 2020, and the second one on his right leg in August. The procedure was a balloon angioplasty, in which a balloon is inserted into the vessel using catheters and inflated to alleviate the narrowing. They used a special balloon coated with medication to prevent re-narrowing.
“It’s like I have two brand new wheels,” Chris said. “My legs aren’t getting tired like they were before. They’re not sore. They don’t hurt. I don’t have to stop and rub my legs and say a few curse words underneath my breath. I just go.”
Dr. Bunte says very few people are familiar with PAD and he hopes other patients will learn from Chris’s story about understanding leg pain and vascular diseases.
“Many patients receive unnecessary back surgeries, injections, or other things for leg pain when, in fact, all they needed was a simple ankle brachial index test to make the diagnosis and get with a vascular specialist. Even in young patients, it’s a common problem that you should get tested for.”
Learn more about Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants – Committed to furthering the field of cardiology by training more fellows than any other program in the region and publishing more research studies than most cardiology departments in the country.