Gale Fisher, Vascular Services


​How UW Medicine helped me end eight years of pain.

I used to walk for miles.

When we lived in California, I was always going on long walks. I liked to do it to stay in shape, but really I just liked it.

But then this pain started.

It would begin in my lower back and make its way down my legs. It began somewhat gradually, and I’d shorten my walks because of it. But as time went on, it got progressively worse and, before long, my legs would begin to go numb.

My walks shortened to 10 minutes and then to five minutes. I’d sit down and the pain would go away, only to return once I started walking.

I’ve always wanted to have a little dog, but when the pain came along, I was only able to walk about three minutes at a stretch. That’s not a life for a dog. It wasn’t even a life for me.

I probably went to four different doctors in California, and they kept saying it was something in my spine. My symptoms were similar to a condition called spinal stenosis, and on the surface, it’s very easy to confuse them. One of the doctors even went so far as to suggest spinal fusion surgery.

That just didn’t feel right to me, I don’t mean to suggest they didn’t know their business. But I feel like if they had truly listened to the words I was saying, that the result would have been completely different. They might have asked, “Is there something else this could be?”

In fact, I was fortunate that we moved to Seattle. For while the change of scenery did nothing for my pain, if we’d stayed where we were, I may very well have opted for the spinal fusion surgery — and still had the same pain on top of it.

Now in the Northwest, the pursuit of the cause continued. A spinal specialist actually told me my spine looked good for my age, so he wanted to try a series of injections to see if it was some hidden cause. Each time I hoped that this would be it. And each time it ended in painful disappointment.

Walks of any distance were slow going and involved many breaks — if I could make it at all. We’re heavily involved in youth sports, something hugely important to me, and the pain was impacting my ability to be a part of that.

There’s only so long you can live with pain like this before it starts to affect you — not just physically, but psychologically. I felt broken. Like I was never again going to feel okay.

For eight years, I was missing out on my own life. That was enough. So I made the decision to get to the bottom of this myself.

Getting on the internet, I searched “leg pain when walking.” At first there were hundreds of potential causes, and I read through each and every one of them. And then I clicked on a link for claudication.

Claudication, a symptom of peripheral arterial disease (from the Latin word for “limping,” appropriately enough) is pain caused by arterial blockage. Intrigued, I read up on it even more:

- Pain and tiredness in the legs when walking.
- Pain subsides during rest.
- Higher risk with smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Check, check and check.

It all fit — the symptoms, the risk factors, all of it. There was even a simple ultrasound test to check for it. I asked my general practitioner to order the test, and it confirmed my suspicions. I had total blockage in my right leg and partial blockage in my left.

The first specialist I was referred to suggested a highly invasive arterial bypass that would involve weeks and weeks of recovery. Once again, I needed a second opinion.

Another way that our move to Seattle was fortunate was that it allowed my husband to meet​​ Dr. Ellenbogen (UW Physician, Harborview Medical Center). Dr. Ellenbogen assured my husband that he was going to make sure I got in touch with doctors who would take care of me. But after all of my previous experiences, you could say I was skeptical.

But sure enough, Dr. Ellenbogen wrote me an email personally and referred me to Dr. Starnes (UW Physician, Harborview Medical Center).

The funny thing is that even before my first meeting with Dr. Starnes, I happened to flip the TV to UWTV, where I saw him giving a talk about vascular surgery. He spoke with such enthusiasm and confidence, I thought, how could I not want to go to this guy?

At our first meeting, Dr. Starnes didn’t disappoint. Looking over my tests, he was practically giddy with excitement. “Gale, I can’t wait to help you,” he told me.

It turned out that he was an expert at a complex yet less-invasive procedure, and my blockage was in the ideal place for it. So we went ahead.

If you can ever describe surgery as wonderful, this would certainly qualify. Not only was it a complete success, but every part of the experience was comforting and empowering.

I went in to the hospital in the morning, and I was home later that day. Compared to the option with weeks of recovery, this felt like a breeze. My husband told me that after the procedure, Dr. Starnes came to the waiting room with a drawing of what he’d done, excitedly describing every detail.

Back home, a nurse friend of mine had come over to help out if I needed it. The next day, deciding I didn’t need help, she suggested that we go for a walk.

Not just yet, I said.

She asked again the following day. Again, I declined.

Finally, 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.

And the pain? It was gone. Eight years of pain that held me back from enjoying life and the people and things around me — gone.

It felt wonderful — so wonderful.

My reward (besides being pain-free again) was Meeko, our little dog. I wouldn’t be able to have this time with him before. And now I can’t imagine anything else.

Whatever you’re going through, there are people out there who listen and care and have the knowledge to help you. Sometimes, we simply need to take control and change course to find them.

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