For months, Conway Harris’ ingrown toenail refused to heal — even after surgery removed part of it.
It was only after doctors performed an angioplasty, a minimally invasive procedure that opened an artery and improved blood flow to his foot, that Harris’ toe finally started healing.
But all was still not well.
Doctors diagnosed Harris with peripheral artery disease, or PAD, in which the peripheral arteries that carry blood away from the heart to other parts of the body narrow.
“I had never heard about PAD before my diagnosis,” said Harris, a 75-year-old retired factory worker living in Durham, North Carolina. “When I was finally diagnosed, I thought to myself, ‘Lord, I’m going to have to do something.’”
He did, first seeking guidance from his health care team. A vascular flow test revealed a blockage in his thigh and a sore on a toe, leading his primary care doctor to conclude he had no choice but to amputate Harris’ toe or foot.
Fortunately, Harris then saw a cardiologist at Duke University who suggested a more conservative approach: two stents in his right leg and angioplasty in his left leg to improve blood flow.
The most common type of the condition is lower-extremity PAD, in which blood flow is reduced to the legs and feet.
More than 8.5 million people in the U.S. have PAD. People who smoke — like Harris — are twice as likely to have it. Black people and those with type 2 diabetes are also at higher risk. Heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are other risk factors.
PAD symptoms include burning, aching, cramping, numbness, fatigue or discomfort in leg or hip muscles while walking. Pain usually goes away with rest and returns when you’re active again.
In the most severe cases, and if left untreated for too long, PAD can result in amputation of the leg or feet. Most of the estimated 150,000 leg amputations performed in the U.S. each year are on people with diabetes and PAD. But you can ask your doctor about other treatment options, and if necessary, get a second opinion.
Despite the risk and prevalence of peripheral artery disease, it continues to be underdiagnosed and few doctors screen for it.
When Harris was diagnosed with PAD in 2014, he could barely walk a quarter of a mile before needing to rest. His leg would cramp, nagging him with the sensation of a pulled muscle.
“Actually, I felt like my calf muscle was about a foot too short,” Harris said.
Since then, Harris has built up his endurance by riding a stationary bike and walking daily. He also focuses on eating healthy, prioritizing chicken over beef and vegetables and salads over French fries.
Still, health continues to be a challenge for Harris, who had always worked out in the gym, but smoked for 20 years and has diabetes. He’s also struggled with high cholesterol.
In 2017, he suffered a heart attack and had coronary angioplasty.
Four years later, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, and needed a pacemaker to keep his heart working properly.
Today, Harris serves on the American Heart Association’s Patient Advisory Council, sharing his health journey with many others. Grateful to still have all 10 toes, he encourages people with PAD to persevere with activities — even if it means taking frequent breaks.
“You have to continue to walk and walk, stop and rest, and then push on again,” he said. “It’s a struggle that you have to push through and keep going the best that you can.”