Last updated on Jun 23rd, 2021 at 12:45 pm

At last, a mother has been able to fulfil her long-cherished dream of swimming in the sea with her son!

This after undergoing a first-for-Africa procedure to relieve the debilitating effects of secondary lymphoedema, which affected one of her legs.

This time last year, 39-year-old Simone Blanckenberg of Cape Town was in dire straits with severely limited mobility. She could no longer run or sit on the floor to play with her six-year-old son, Murray.  The two longed to swim together in the ocean, but this seemed an impossible dream because Simone had been living with secondary lymphoedema for more than eight years following a battle with cancer that started when she was 23 years old.

But on 6 March last year, just as COVID-19 was starting to spread in South Africa, a landmark procedure set Simone’s life and that of her young family on an exciting new course.

What is Lymphoedema and what are the treatment options?

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A life-altering procedure

The life-altering debulking procedure, which took approximately six hours, was performed with the aid of power-assisted liposuction by vascular surgeon, Dr Laura Redman, at Cape Town’s Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital.

Commenting on the intricate procedure, Dr Redman explains that the surgery itself forms only a small part of a strict, lifelong regime that started while Simone was still on the operating table.

“Lymphoedema therapist, Suzi Davey, and I travelled to Sweden to learn how to do the debulking surgery from the iconic Dr Håkan Brorson at Malmö University Hospital so that we could achieve the same excellent outcomes in South Africa as he and his team have delivered in Sweden for the past 30 years,” says Dr Redman.

“While liposuction is not novel in the field of cosmetic surgery, what we have done here is a substantially different medical procedure.”

“While liposuction is not novel in the field of cosmetic surgery, what we have done here is a substantially different medical procedure.”

“In brief, it involves the removal of abnormally formed adipose tissue, which is lymph fluid that is not cleared out of the limb and turns into fat. To facilitate and speed up surgery, power-assisted, bloodless liposuction, which uses a vibrating cannula, is used. In Simone’s case this was particularly important as she has a rare bleeding disorder that results in poor clotting after surgery, which is a significant co-morbidity,” notes Dr Redman.

A lifelong post-operative care regime

Looking back on the surgery and post-operative care regime, Davey says Simone’s quality of life has improved ten-fold in the year since her procedure was performed.

“Simone started healing within a week after the operation and coped very well with her post-surgical symptoms. To prevent the lymph and fat tissue from building up once more, and to stop the associated complications of lymphoedema, a strict lifelong regime of compression is being followed by Simone,” she notes.

Simone’s journey

Recounting her healthcare journey, Simone says she was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on her right shin in her early twenties, which was successfully treated.

“However, by the age of 29 the cancer came back more aggressively, this time in my lymph glands. I therefore underwent surgery as well as radiotherapy. At the time I was warned that lymphoedema could result from the treatment and I therefore pro-actively saw a lymphoedema therapist.

“When I fell pregnant with my son, and underwent a caesarean section, my lymphoedema was triggered and a few weeks after his birth my leg blew up out of proportion. It just got worse and worse. I continued with treatment, but nothing could contain it.

“When I fell pregnant with my son, and underwent a caesarean section, my lymphoedema was triggered”

Back & hip pain

“I was suffering from severe back and hip pain. In addition, the clothing and footwear that I was able to wear became increasingly limited. All of this impacted my mental well-being. Without surgical intervention, I believe I would no longer have functioned normally. I would have succumbed to increasing bouts of cellulitis, would have needed hip and knee operations and would ultimately have become a burden to my family.”

All’s well that ends well

“Dr Redman believes that she can help those who suffer from this debilitating condition and I am living proof of that. The difference this surgical procedure has made to my quality of life is indescribable. I have never felt better. On days such as today, after a 10-kilometre run, I cannot help but marvel at how far I have come in the space of a year.

“Nowadays I can join Murray on the floor, in the waves and wherever our adventures may take us,” concludes Simone.

Before and after Lymphoedema surgery
Before and after Lymphoedema surgery
(Image supplied)

 

Left: A photograph of Simone Blanckenberg’s leg taken on 5 March 2020 the day before her surgery.
Right: A photograph of Simone Blanckenberg’s leg taken one year later on 2 March 2021. According to Simone she has never felt better and the difference the surgical procedure has made to her quality of life is indescribable.

 

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