Happy: Me and Melanie with our newest granddaughter Paloma

I’m just a plumber, really!

“I’m just a plumber, really!”

That was just what I wanted to hear, as I had suffered with blockages and leakages for the proceeding 15 years!

You would be forgiven for thinking … why has this sensible person taken so long to get his house in order?

The answer is complicated. A mixture of cowboy plumbers hoping that putting some sticky tape and glue around things would fix the problems and a lack of proper maintenance.

There were times when the blockages cleared themselves but that would almost always end up with a leak springing up elsewhere.

Anyway, I found a plumber who seemed to get to the heart of the matter. He found where the troubled plumbing was not fit for purpose, put in some new piping to work around the condemned old stuff and patched up and made good where the leaks had been, and all seemed well. In fact, all was good for a few years after this plumber and his team had done their job.

But bugger me, low and behold! The new pipework blocked, and leaks sprung up again. You would have thought I would have learnt my lesson of the past and had the same guy back to sort out the challenges once more. But no, that was too simple! Back to sticky tape, glue and “Ostriching” again! And eventually leaks burst out everywhere…

What is even more crazy is that all the time this had been going on, I had a good all risks insurance policy that would have covered the costs to sort out these issues.

Again, you would be forgiven for thinking, what is the matter with this guy? He keeps letting everything go to rack and ruin and it would cost him nothing to sort it out, yet his solution seems to be “Oh, I will just ignore it and the problem will fix itself!” What a muppet!

So, last week I met this guy who said to me, “I am just a plumber, really” and decided to let him have a go at fixing my plumbing once and for all.

Wait a moment! I have just read back what I have written and think some clarification is required.

What I have been describing is not a building maintenance problem but a medical problem that costs the NHS in the UK £680 million a year to manage and takes up 78% of District Community Nurses time.

I have suffered with deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and leg ulcers for the last 15 years since my mid-40s, which, to be fair, is a young age. However, this is not just an old person’s syndrome and can affect anyone at any age.

My “plumber” told me a shocking statistic – more people die from DVT-related causes than from breast cancer, Aids and road traffic accidents added together each year!

So back to me. How did I end up with a DVT? All I can say is, don’t do any charity fundraising! I got my first on an economy class flight coming back from a charity bike ride in Cuba back in 2005!

Ironically, as I write these words, I am sitting on a Ryanair flight doing leg exercises every 20 minutes, less than a week post-surgery. More of that later.

Previous to this, I had been physically fit but overweight since my early 30s.

That first DVT started about two weeks after the flight, with a bad back pain which led to my right leg feeling “dead”. It started on a Thursday and got progressively worse over the weekend. I went to a physio on the Monday morning who took a look at me and said he thought I had a trapped disc (cowboy plumber no.1) and that, with a course of sessions with him, it would get sorted.

Later that day, my right leg started to suddenly swell, and I thought I ought to go and see my GP. She took one look at me, heard the symptoms and said I ought to go straight to A&E as this could be a life-threatening condition called deep vein thrombosis. Well, that was a surprise!

I ended up being admitted for a week and put on heavy-duty blood thinners to ensure I did not get a clot on my lungs or other vital organ. Scary, to say the least, and so started my life with “plumbing issues”.

So, back in 2005, I was seen by a vascular surgeon; in fact, two vascular surgeons (cowboy plumbers no.2 and no.3) who basically gave me an outlook of “there is no fix for this, your circulation is rubbish and because of your DVT, you are likely to get ulcers periodically for the rest of your life and only compression and rest will help this”.

As a man in his mid-40s, this was pretty depressing!

I guess this diagnosis put me into a state of denial and, for a number of years, leg ulcers came and went along with the occasional DVT.

So, what issues was I living with?
A leg ulcer is a large and sometimes deep wound that takes a long time to heal and can form from something as simple as walking into a chair or being bitten by a mosquito.

The resulting discomfort manifests itself in a number of ways. Firstly, standing for any length of time would result in a stinging sensation round the wound, which would eventually pass to a dull throbbing, like having a bad tooth ache in your leg.

Walking would be uncomfortable and eventually painful, and my leg would become swollen, particularly around my ankles and upper thigh.

The wound would pump out a fluid and, despite dressings, this would soak through and often leave a wet patch on my trouser leg. On many occasions, this would be embarrassingly pointed out by people in social situations, where you would explain what the problem was, and the reply was often: “Ulcers? Isn’t that what old people get?”

At its worst, every night I went to bed, I would wake up in the morning and my bed clothes would be covered and stained with the gunk coming out of the ulcer. So, you can imagine how good it felt staying in a hotel or at a friend’s for a sleepover!

Going on holiday or living in a warm climate is great, as when you wear shorts it is great game to watch people stare at your legs looking at the scars of past ulcers and pulling painful faces.

Then, sometimes, no matter how fastidious you were keeping the ulcer clean, you pick up a blood infection leaving you with flu-like symptoms and needing to take time off work and a heavy-duty dose of antibiotics.

Add all the above together and you are not left in the most positive place mentally.

So, why did I suffer in silence and denial for so many years? That is a tough one to answer as there is just not one answer. But here is my attempt to quantify why.

1. I guess it boiled down to a mixture of disinterest from certain health professionals.
2. Admitting I was suffering from an “old people’s” disease.
3. Not even thinking of the condition as a disease, more something I had to put up with.
4. Life getting in the way and it’s not that bad anyway to do something about.
5. Stubborn male ego! For Christ’s sake, “man up”!
6. Well, it’s not cancer, is it?
7. There is nothing anyone can do!

All the above sound a bit stupid now, but that was how it was and, therefore, I did not go actively seeking support and went through my daily routine of cleaning and dressing my ulcers, which I have pretty much had constantly for the last three years on one or both legs.

Until last summer, when my kids ganged up on me with my wife, and finally persuaded me to go back and see my surgeon in Portugal where I live.

Admitting I had a chronic condition which needed to be dealt with was probably the biggest step and, two weeks after my “Road to Damascus” moment, I was back in front of my surgeon Dr Sérgio Silva and my daily trips to the “angels” who have looked after my legs for the last six months started. In the meantime, my surgeon prodded, poked and considered what was the best solution for me across a number of consultations.

“Would you consider going to Galway for an operation?” he asked.

“I’ll go anywhere if it will sort me out!” I replied. “But why Galway?”

“The best person to sort you out, in my opinion, lives there and either you go there, or we bribe him with golf to come over here and operate on you,” smiled Dr Sérgio. “He can do things I can’t. I think it is best.”

So, my scans and data were sent over to Professor Gerry O’Sullivan to see if he could help me. On New Year’s Day, at 6.20pm, I received an email from Gerry saying yes, he could! As I told my wife Melanie the positive news, I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably unable to get my words out as 15 years of discomfort seemed to be lifting.

Gerry O’Sullivan is an Interventional Radiologist. Well, what is one of them, I hear you cry. I am not the person to give you his job description. What I can say is that, as far as I am concerned, he is a rock star! Just over a week ago, he operated on me for nearly six hours by gaining access to my troublesome veins through small incisions in my groin and my neck and has inserted venal stents that have led to a massive improvement to my blood circulation.

How do I know? Within one hour of waking up, I had pink warm toes rather than the cold bluey grey ones that I have stood on for more years than I care to remember.

I was discharged from hospital two days after the operation with little discomfort. In fact, the most pain came from removing the sticky pads to monitor my heart from my hairy chest!

A week on from the operation, my leg ulcers appear to be healing and the pins and needles in my right foot that I have had for 15 years are improving. It is early days but, as Gerry said just before he wheeled me down to theatre, “this will work!”

I am taking each day as it comes, but you know what? I am so happy!

I am writing this article for a number of reasons:
1. To thank my wife and children for making me “see the light” and find a solution.

2. To thank Gerry and his team in Galway and Sérgio and his team in Alvor. I hope they may share my article with patients to let them know they are not alone, and a cure may be available to them.

3. But, most importantly, to say to all leg ulcer sufferers and people living with DVT, do not let medical professionals tell you: “This is something you will have to live with.” If you are relatively fit and healthy, there may well be a solution out there for you to assist in getting a better quality of life.

4. I am very lucky for two reasons: I have private health cover and have met two “enlightened” healthcare professionals.

5. However, this procedure is only available in a handful of locations across Europe and I believe only a very small percentage of people who could benefit from this treatment actually do. I want to try in a small way to increase awareness and encourage the healthcare community to move from a stance of “managing” leg ulcers to curing them through interventional radiology techniques and give sufferers a better quality of life.

Thank you for reading my article and if you have found it useful please feel free to share it with others.

By Chris Winstanley

Having my leg dressing changed at the Hospital Particular in Alvor by one of my “angels”
Happy: Me and Melanie with our newest granddaughter Paloma
Dr Gerry O’Sullivan – “I’m just a plumber, really!”