It was a fateful conversation with an old family friend that ultimately helped save Elizabeth Lawson’s foot and, most likely, her life.
At her home in Branchland, West Virginia, Elizabeth had been suffering for several weeks from a diabetic foot ulcer, leaving her in constant pain and unable to walk. While Elizabeth was seeing a podiatrist in West Virginia, her son, Steven, grew increasingly concerned that the wound seemed to be getting worse and his mother’s health was deteriorating.
It was while waiting in their local podiatrist’s office that Steven and Elizabeth had a chance encounter. Their friend, who was suffering a similar foot wound, mentioned he was planning to go to a hospital in Cleveland, St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, to see a foot and ankle surgeon, Dr. Michael Canales, because of their combined reputation as the best in the field.
As a retired intensive care nurse, Steven knew that risks of letting an infection like his mother’s go without proper treatment. He was alarmed that she was at risk of not only losing her lower leg, but of losing her life.
He called St. Vincent, afraid that it might take weeks to get an appointment, and was shocked when the answer was, “how soon can you get here?” After their five-hour journey from Branchland to Cleveland, Steven said he and his mother knew as soon as they arrived that they had found the right place.
“From the time we pulled into the front door, we knew this place was different,” Steven said. “Everyone was so friendly and caring – from the valet attendant to staff in the wound center to the nurses, doctors and residents. They treated us like they had known us our whole life. I knew I had found the right place to take care of mom.”
Elizabeth’s condition was as alarming as Steven had feared. Elizabeth had developed a MRSA infection of the bone and tissue, a life-threatening condition often resistant to antibiotic treatment. Dr. Canales quickly took Elizabeth into surgery to aggressively debride the wound and remove all diseased tissue. The art of this type of surgery is the balance between preserving enough healthy tissue and bone to protect the limb, without leaving behind any remnants of the infection.
“As a surgeon, you must trust that when you remove the infected area that you got it all and there is nothing left cooking underneath. This type of infection can quickly spread and become systemic and life-ending,” Dr. Canales said.
After a four-day stay at St. Vincent, Elizabeth returned home in a specialized cast to protect the foot from further infection and to reduce pressure on the wound so that it could heal. Over the course of the next three months, Elizabeth would return to St. Vincent every two weeks for treatment from Dr. Canales or one of the hospital’s specialized podiatric residents.
The medical team urged the Lawsons to watch for any warning signs of infection, including blood sugar spikes, pain, fever, night sweats and heart palpitations, and then armed them with a direct phone number to the residents and Dr. Canales to report any changes. In addition, Dr. Canales closely monitored Elizabeth’s condition, including frequently assessing progression of healing or any emergent conditions.
“Because of the distance and the nature of her infection, it was critical for us to be able to see, rather than rely on a phone description, what was happening so there wasn’t a back step,” Dr. Canales said. “This is an aggressive infection and things can turn on a dime. One day a patient might feel a little sore at the wound site, and then one week later we find ourselves in the eye of a hurricane.”
Because of the careful and specialized treatment at St. Vincent, Elizabeth said she is now back to wearing a regular shoe – something she hasn’t been able to do in over a year – and is “ready to go somewhere each day.” Dr. Canales personally found a podiatrist in her West Virginia hometown to regularly monitor her and treat any issues before they become life threatening.
However, Elizabeth said, her journey with St. Vincent is not over. She will definitely be back to the hospital when she is ready to have her knee replaced and regularly recommends St. Vincent to friends and family because of the care she received.
As a nurse who worked in numerous hospitals over the years, Steven was so impressed with the kindness and compassion of all he met at St. Vincent that he momentarily thought about coming out of retirement.
“Everyone I met, you could tell that these people love their jobs,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘have I been working in the wrong place all my life?’ And then I wondered should I move to Cleveland just so I can work here? God Bless the doctors, nurses and all the dedicated employees of St. Vincent for the wonderful care my mother received.”