From Smokin’ to Strollin’: My Journey with Peripheral Arterial Disease

Effective Mindset Strategies for Coping with Peripheral Arterial Disease

Mindset for PAD

By Jim Stocker, as told to Danny Bonvissuto

Jim Stocker, retired regional sales manager, Franklin, TN.

When I started smoking in high school, it was the epitome of cool. Back then, attractive women in grocery stores would slyly hand out little packs of four cigarettes, trying to get you to change your brand. Ah, the good old days of marketing tactics. Even during my time in the military, my C-rations came with cigarettes, and the sentiment was simple: “Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.” Nobody had health concerns on their radar at the time.

Unlike those who can pinpoint the exact minute, hour, and day they quit smoking, I can’t because I quit so many times. I was the king of quitting and coming back for more nicotine punishment. But let me tell you, it was one rollercoaster of a journey.

Fast forward to my early 60s, still puffing away, and smoking had become a social downer. Gone were the days of ashtrays in offices and conference rooms. We were gradually exiled to designated smoking areas within the office premises. Eventually, we were banished to the parking lot, huddled together like outcasts, puffing clouds of smoke. It was no longer a matter of health, but a business necessity. You see, people started noticing the smell of smoke on me, and it didn’t exactly exude professionalism.

Then, in 2006, after a year of retirement, my health gave me a wake-up call in the form of classic heart disease symptoms. That led to me having a quintuple coronary bypass. Ouch! After the surgery, I went through 16 weeks of coronary rehab, doing everything from treadmill workouts to resistance training. I even learned relaxation techniques to Zen out. I emerged from rehab feeling like a new man and kept up with my exercise routine religiously for the next decade. But then, everything went downhill―literally and figuratively, you might say.

It was December of 2016, right around the jolly holiday season, when my left leg decided to give me a surprise wake-up call at 3 a.m. Pain radiated through my entire leg, leaving me utterly incapacitated. It felt like someone had dunked my leg in a simmering pot of lava. I couldn’t bear weight on it, so I somehow managed to crawl to the bathroom, contemplating whether I should dial 911 or wait it out. Spoiler alert: waiting for the pain to magically disappear didn’t quite do the trick.

At first, I thought it was a hip problem because the pain seemed to originate from there and shoot down my leg. I consulted an orthopedist about my routine arthritis, hoping for some relief. Surgery was proposed, but I couldn’t bear waiting for eight weeks in agonizing pain. So, I hobbled back to the doctor after just four days, desperately pleading for another solution. That’s when things started to get weird (in a medical way).

We explored a myriad of options, from lidocaine injections to visits to back specialists and pain management experts. They even suggested implanting a remote control device in my glutes to have pain-controlling powers. It all felt like a wild guessing game. I finally went back to my Primary Care Physician (PCP) and spilled my frustration, practically ready to concede defeat. But my doc, being the marvelous human he is, casually dropped the bomb: “What about a chiropractor?” he asked, as if he had just unveiled a secret weapon.

Off I went, following my PCP’s blessing, to meet a nurse practitioner at the chiropractor’s office. After a thorough evaluation of my symptoms, she dropped a bombshell of her own: “Mr. Stocker, you really don’t need to be here. I worked in a cath lab for eight years and have seen your condition hundreds of times. You have a circulation issue.”

Boom! My world was rocked. A circulation issue? Who would’ve thought? I was promptly referred to a cardiologist, who then sent me to a vascular specialist. That’s when the jargon hit me hard―Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD). They discovered that my right leg had about 70% occlusion, and my left leg didn’t fare much better with 40%. Turns out, my decades of smoking had taken a toll on my poor legs. And get this, the intense pain I experienced that fateful night was like a leg attack, akin to others’ heart attacks. My legs joined the rebellious organ club, I suppose.

Desperate for relief, I tried medications, but they failed to do the trick. Time for surgery! The vascular surgeon made his entrance, armed with stents and endarterectomies, ready to tackle the occluded femoral arteries like a hero in scrubs. In September and December of 2018, two years after my leg attack, I underwent these life-altering surgeries.

It’s safe to say that life post-diagnosis and surgeries has brought some relief, though it hasn’t been a walk in the park. Literally. Leading up to my PAD diagnosis, a simple stroll around the neighborhood meant having to perch myself on a curb to ease the excruciating pain. Every step felt like leg day at the gym, cranked up to maximum intensity. The agony of an 8 or 9 out of 10 would grip my calves and zap my energy during any physical activity.

But since the surgeries, my doctor warned me not to expect instant miracles. My muscles needed to remember how to utilize the newly revitalized blood supply. Turns out, these occlusions love to make your muscles go on a little strike, leading to atrophy. In my case, it meant my legs had to put in some extra effort because they were the unlucky ones, farthest away from the heart.

Flash forward to today. I can now comfortably walk for 20-30 minutes or even longer. The difference is, whenever the pain arises, I know I can push through and it’ll eventually retreat to a tolerable level. Sure, I won’t be running around at Disneyland anytime soon, but I can still manage to mow my own lawn with an old-school push mower. The hard work might be tough on my calves and legs, but it’s a satisfying kind of pain.

PAD hasn’t robbed me of life’s joys, though I’ll admit that age has inevitably slowed me down. You can’t rev the engines at full throttle forever; adjustments are necessary. I consider myself lucky to have been diagnosed and strong enough to understand what it takes to stay healthy. PAD may not be a threat to my life, but it certainly altered it. Allowing it to confine me to a recliner would’ve opened the floodgates to more age-related issues. I may be 82, but I surely don’t feel like it. I wish I could move around a bit better, but hey, life is a thousand times better than it was.

So here’s the takeaway, my friends: Embrace life, even when it throws you a curveball like PAD. Don’t let it take away your joy and mobility. Seek help, don’t fear the unconventional, and find the strength within yourself to make the necessary changes. If I can do it, so can you!

P.S. Update: It’s April 2023, and I’m thrilled to share that my PAD has progressively improved since the article was first published! Despite some other medical issues that affected my ability to exercise, my leg strength is better than ever. I can walk for at least 45 minutes with only minor discomfort. Sure, arthritis tries to play its part, but that’s par for the course at my age. Stay strong, my fellow fighters!

This article was originally published on iBioMed and has been adapted with permission.
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