For twenty years, Patricia Shea struggled with a swollen right arm that was almost as big as her leg. Embarrassed, she never wore short sleeves even in sweltering heat. It caused her to have trouble brushing her hair, so she cut it and never went to the hairdresser. In fact, she rarely went anywhere other than to work.
“It [my arm] was so heavy and it would ache,” recalls Pat, 60, of Uxbridge. “I couldn’t lift anything. I couldn’t even peel potatoes or cut carrots. I was hospitalized thirteen times for cellulitis. It was awful. I thought I would have this forever.”
Two decades ago, Pat was diagnosed with lymphedema after a lumpectomy and the removal of seventeen lymph nodes. The condition results from a blockage in the lymphatic system, which prevents lymph fluid from draining well and, ultimately, leads to swelling. At that time, the therapy treatment she was given at another facility to reduce the swelling was unsuccessful.
So, recently, when her primary care physician recommended she seek therapy with a certified lymphedema specialist at Milford Regional’s Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, Pat was skeptical. After all, therapy hadn’t worked before. But, with nothing left to lose, Pat decided to go, and that decision changed her life. Thanks to occupational therapist Elizabeth Davis, OTR/L, CHT, CLT, Pat has finally learned the keys to managing her condition.
Milford Regional is well known for its strong lymphedema program. The rehab site in Milford has three certified lymphedema specialists, while the Northbridge site has one.
“We use Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) which has two components,” Elizabeth relates. “The first, manual lymphatic drainage massage is a type of skin massage that helps accumulated lymph fluid drain through proper channels. The next component is short stretch multilayered bandaging, a special technique to reduce swelling. The patient wears a compression sleeve during the day, and at night they either do the bandaging themselves, or they wear a special night garment if they are too tired to make the effort to bandage.”
Pat started therapy in June and went twice a week for eighteen visits. A big part of the job is teaching the patient to become independent. “This is a lifelong condition,” Elizabeth notes. “She doesn’t need to do the massage to the level that I did when she came in, but I taught her some maintenance techniques to do herself.”
According to Elizabeth, lymphedema can affect patients even five years after surgery, which many people don’t realize. It can also present in other locations like the neck, leg and trunk. Plus, any kind of surgery can affect the lymph nodes; the more that are removed, the greater the risk.
Unfortunately, awareness is low and not every community offers certified specialists. “We have had patients come from Connecticut and Rhode Island as they can’t find a certified lymphedema specialist in their area,” Elizabeth says. “It’s so rewarding for me to be able to give some hope and see the quality of life change.”
After two decades of discomfort, Pat marvels at the transformation. “I can wear a blouse now and it fits, instead of wearing those big baggy things so my arm could slip in,” she says happily. “I got my hair cut, my nails done, and got elastic sleeves with different prints. Now I can wear rings. I can exercise. It was so amazing to me. I cried at one point when I went out and got new clothes.”
Pat has adjusted to her daily maintenance routine, which she does while watching TV. She does a half hour self-massage, and the wrapping and unwrapping each take about fifteen minutes. “It’s a whole new life for me,” she says. “I feel like a different person, and I owe it all to Milford Regional. It was so convenient, and it was a wonderful experience that I would recommend to anyone who has lymphedema. This is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I hid my arm for twenty years, and I’m so thankful that’s over. It’s nice to be normal again.”
For more information on Milford Regional’s Rehab and Sport Medicine, go to our website at milfordregional.org or call 508-422-2388.