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One Senior Shares Her Advice on Living With Lymphedema: ‘You Don’t Have To’

The doctor happened to be at Donna Bloom’s house the day she received one of her in-home lymphedema treatments from Shaunda Brekke, Occupational Therapist and Certified Lymphedema Therapist for Lifesprk Home Health. He was holding onto the notion that Shaunda’s home health care treatment wasn’t going to relieve the swelling on Donna’s legs.

“There was a time where both my legs were twice the size they normally should be,” said Donna. “My doctor had said to continue the Lasix, it should eventually work, but the fact was it wasn’t. And my home health nurse didn’t know how to handle my situation, but knew enough to contact her colleague Shaunda.” Donna’s doctor was amazed at Shaunda’s results – in just two weeks of in-home care treatment, Donna’s legs decreased in size tremendously. “I went from a wheelchair to a walker,” said Donna. “Shaunda’s treatments made a big difference – a VERY big difference. My doctor was very surprised. As was my son, and he’s a doctor too.”

Lymphedema is a condition where fluids collect in a person’s arms or legs causing swelling (edema). According to the Mayo Clinic, lymphedema is most often caused by removal of or damage to the lymph nodes. It results in a blockage of your lymphatic system and the blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining which results in swelling.

There has been a long-standing misconception among health care professionals that there’s not much they can do to help relieve the symptoms other than elevate affected limbs, watch sodium intake, and take a diuretic like Lasix in Donna’s case.

“It’s simply not true that those are the only options,” said Shaunda. “Those tactics may work for many people but there are also other less invasive options that relieve symptoms easier and vastly improve quality of life.” Donna tried to put into words the feeling of watching her legs shrink in diameter: “It’s a soothing feeling and you can’t believe the treatments move the fluid the way they do but it works, and it feels so good.”

Shaunda’s lymphedema treatment involves a progression of home health care visits.  Donna started with two appointments per week at her home, and as her swelling reduced, her appointments became weekly. “I’m finished with them now and things are great, I know it’s not a cure, my legs will eventually fill back up, but I don’t need Lasix as much anymore and I’m able to get around. My cardiologist is very impressed with how I’m doing without the need for medicine.”

One of Shaunda’s other clients had razor blades used on her skin for forty years to drain the fluid built up from lymphedema. Shaunda was shocked but not surprised. “So many of my clients never realized there was an alternate option that works to relieve their symptoms,” said Shaunda. “They don’t have to live with lymphedema symptoms, and yet many are told that’s all they can do.”

In Europe, manual lymph drainage has been a regular practice since the 1930s because of its ability to holistically drain fluid caused by lymphedema. It wasn’t until later that the United States began the practice. Still today, not many professionals are certified in this specialized treatment. Shaunda is one of four on staff at Lifesprk who are certified to provide these treatments in the privacy of a senior’s home. “Lymphatic draining is critical to keeping the immune system healthy,” explained Shaunda. “Proper techniques help move the fluid through the body quicker and more efficiently. And most importantly, it changes lives.”

Crucial to keeping your body healthy, the lymphatic system circulates protein-rich lymph fluid throughout your body collecting bacteria, viruses, and waste products that are carried through your lymph vessels to your lymph nodes and then flushed out of your body. But sometimes, people who have had surgery or joint replacements, decreased mobility or circulation, cancers, an injury or infection can experience lymphedema..lymphedema-specialist

“The clients who I work with never thought life could be better, that there would come a time where their mobility or circulation would improve, but they are living it, experiencing a better quality of life because of this treatment,” said Shaunda. “Since October, I’ve been so busy with referrals I’m only focusing my time on clients with lymphedema. There is a strong need for this level of expertise at home and it is changing lives, including my own. Before the certification there wasn’t much I could do to help alleviate my clients’ symptoms, even as an occupational therapist. Lymphedema training has changed how I’m able to deliver care. I can immediately address a growing issue for people.” And that growing issue affects upwards of 10 million Americans who suffer from lymphedema.

What can you expect with a lymphedema treatment? Shaunda shares some of her methods:

  • Exercises – According to Shaunda, lack of movement increases lymphedema. “That can be hard if you’ve recently had knee or hip surgery. But moving and doing light exercises can help keep fluid moving.” She focuses on a variety of exercises to increase muscle and limb movement, things like light kicks and range of motion to keep lymph nodes draining.
  • Compression wraps – These are bandages of varying sizes that apply pressure to the leg or arm for a desired clinical effect. Donna uses these, explaining that the size of the wrap depends on the need. “It’s not the same for everyone but for me these work really well.” Another of Shaunda’s clients lost 14” of fluid in three days. “I was amazed at the results. I put the bandage on Thursday and by Monday morning it had already produced significant results,” said Shaunda.
  • Skin integrity – Shaunda explained that people experiencing lymphedema sometimes have skin issues associated with the swelling and it’s important that the treatments don’t overlook skin health to avoid skin infections
  • Node clearing – Also called manual lymph draining, this is a very specialized technique that works to massage and circulate the fluid to express fluid. Donna laughed and said, “It’s kind of like milking your leg but it feels wonderful. I’ve never had a treatment like this before where it actually changes the contour of your leg and affects the rest of my body.”

There are many other methods that Shaunda uses and the decision on which to use is based on the person and goals. The overall goal is better circulation and improved mobility. “And of course my favorite, a return to sparked living,” said Shaunda. “That’s what it’s really about.”

“It’s an art,” added Donna. “Not everyone can do this and I’m so grateful to Shaunda for helping. I just love what happened to me.”

Have you experienced lymphedema treatments? How did it change your life? Share ON!

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