University Hospitals offers special program to save lives, limbs

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) — Health problems can seemingly come out of nowhere.

“I ended up on the floor of my bedroom,” said John Potocnik, 73.

For Potocnik, a long-time resident of Mayfield Heights , it was one problem after another.

“But then the next day I fell in the bathroom and my wife said ‘no, we’re not doing this again.’ She said, ‘we’re gonna call the paramedics,’” he said.

Diagnosed with diabetes, an infection of his foot was getting worse and ultimately began to cut off blood circulation. Six surgeries later and amputations of several toes, a second opinion changed his life.

“John was in big trouble,” said Dr. Mehdi Shishehbor of University Hospitals. “He had gangrene.”

Dr. Shishehbor, a cardiologist, is the president of the UH Harrington Heart and Vascular Institute at University Hospitals. He sees as many as 500 patients per year with problems like ulcers and gangrene.

“Ninety-five percent of the patients that are referred to me and have been told that they need a major amputation, losing part of the leg, or the whole leg, we are able to save their leg,” the doctor said.

He credits a unique medical council formed at the hospital.

“We have made a huge commitment here at UH by creating a council; it’s called the limb salvage advisory council,” said Dr. Shishehbor. “Any patient that walks into UH Hospital System…and is at risk of losing their leg that procedure cannot be done until the council is activated.”

The council, combined with skilled techniques, provides patients with access to life-altering care.

“We are the only site here in the state of Ohio that’s offering the LimFlow procedure,” he said. “LimFlow, where we take the blood flow from an artery and divert it to the vain.”

Dr. Shishehbor said many of his patients come from a lower socio-economic background and don’t feel like they have the authority to question a doctor’s recommendations even for a procedure as serious as amputation. He said limb salvage does not get as much attention as other conditions.

April is Limb Loss and Limb Difference Awareness Month. According to the Amputee Coalition, more than two million Americans live with limb loss or limb difference, and more than 28 million are at risk of amputation surgery.

Dr. Shishehbor said there is a “huge disparity in amputation. If you’re African-American, you’re four times more likely to get amputated compared to a white patient — same age, everything.”

“We know that if you save limbs, you save lives,” said Dr. Shishehbor. Fifty percent of these patients die within two years if you don’t save their limbs. So, asking patients to get a second and third opinion is extremely important.”

Potocnik received three stents and quickly recovered within weeks after his surgery.

“I have no idea what I would’ve done if it wasn’t for him,” said Potocnik.

He now encourages others to get second medical opinions and credits Dr. Shishehbor for helping him possibly avoid a similar circumstance as his father.

“My father, he had both his legs amputated and that was back in the 90s. Today, I think — did he really need it?” said Potocnik.

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