NEW ORLEANS -- Twenty million people in the U.S. have a condition that causes people to lose a leg to amputation.
Smoking, diabetes and aging are the main causes. Family history of cardiovascular disease can also raise your risk.
But now a local doctor is working to save patient limbs.
A few years ago 63-year-old Frank Legarde, of Metairie, thought he'd never walk normally again.
"I'd never heard of it. Never dreamed I would get it. I just knew nothing about it," said Legarde of his extreme leg pain.
He needed many procedures for peripheral artery disease, or PAD. When a graft in his leg became infected, his hospital stay lasted seven months. Doctors nearly amputated his leg.
"When I went into surgery, my leg was gray, from my mid-thigh down to my toes was gray and yellow. It was all but no circulation whatsoever," Legarde said.
Clogged arteries in the chest cause heart attacks. Clogged arteries in the neck and brain cause strokes. Clogged arteries in the lower body cause PAD blocking blood flow to the legs.
"We know that if someone has a diminished foot pulse, they are much more likely to die of a heart attack or a stroke than someone without this. It costs nothing. Just simply one's physician putting their finger on a foot pulse," said Dr. Craig Walker, who is the founder and medical director of the Cardiovascular Institute of the South and a clinical professor of medicine at Tulane.
Dr. Walker has been able to save his patients legs, with no amputations, 98 percent of the time. Legarde is one of his patients.
"Unfortunately, still the standard of care is to go directly to amputation and it's wrong. It's more expensive. It has profound morbidity and tremendous mortality," said Dr. Walker.
Doctors from all over the world are in New Orleans to learn the many ways to treat PAD. Live surgeries streamed from Lafayette, put the doctors at the conference O.R. Simulators in a bus called SimSuite by Spectranetics, give visiting doctors practice before they touch a real patient, such as using laser intervention to unclog a leg vessel and restore blood flow.
You can clearly see in scans why the pulse or the blood flow to the lower legs has been cut off. Some vessels have long areas filled with plaque. After the doctor does the procedure, the blood flow is visibly flowing freely.
Legarde is back to his law practice full time. He is fishing, working on his tree nursery and cattle farm and enjoying life with his five children and 12 grandchildren. He walks to the lakefront and takes his grandchildren swimming. And he was proud that he could walk his daughter down the aisle at a time when he thought he's need a wheelchair or walker.
"Well she saw I didn't have the walker, well she starts crying, and the only thing I remember she's yelling at me, 'You're messing up my makeup,'" he said, laughing.
Dr. Walker said having an amputation raises a patient's risk of dying within 30 days of surgery.
His 2001 study shows that a majority of the amputations are done without checking the blood flow or pressure in the leg.
Women have less cardiovascular disease than men, but are more likely to die from it and more likely to have an amputation.
For more on Dr. Craig Walker, click here.
For more on the Cardiovascular Institute of the South, click here.