Athena’s Outpatient Care: The Rare Lymphedema Program At Montowese
NORTH HAVEN, C.T. — Lymphedema can be a burden on those diagnosed with the condition.
It induces swelling due to a build-up of lymph fluid that can be caused by trauma or damage to the lymph nodes. It’s a life-long condition, but at Montowese Health & Rehabilitation Center in North Haven, their goal is to help manage the condition.
“That’s what we aim to do with lymphedema therapy. It’s not going to cure the lymphedema, it’s always going to be there, but through acute treatment and then transition into custom garments, we’re able to really manage it which has huge benefactors as far as mobility,” Meredith Ballard said.
Ballard is an Occupational Therapist, Certified Lymphedema Therapist, and also a Lead Therapist at the center’s rehabilitation clinic. She is both passionate and prepared to help people manage lymphedema. Originally from North Carolina, Ballard came to New England to attend Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. After graduation, she got a job at Montowese and liked it so much, she has stayed for eight years.
According to the Lymphedema Treatment Act, passed on the federal level in late 2022, an estimated three to five million Americans have the condition. The act will improve insurance coverage for doctor-prescribed, medically necessary compression supplies to treat lymphedema and will go into effect in January 2024. According to the organization that advocated for the bill, most physicians are barely taught about the lymphatic system during their medical training. Ballard can attest to this.
“It’s not something you learn all that much about in school. They’re kind of like, ‘Okay, lymph nodes, you have them’ move on,” she said.
Because of the limited education, lymphedema can often be misdiagnosed and not treated correctly. Ballard takes pride in being a Certified Lymphedema Therapist and says it’s rare to have the certification because it is “extensive,” “tedious,” and “intimidating” to get. She traveled to her home state of North Carolina to take the two-week, 10-hour-a-day course. There were also days of modules she had to complete before the course began.
The team at Montowese has the equipment, techniques, and experience to manage lymphedema. Ballard said the fluid build-up can be difficult to relocate out of the impacted area and, because of that, they get hands-on to help move the fluid through the body.
“The biggest population we do see it is with breast cancer patients because a lot of treatment is to the breast tissue and there is a lot of lymph tissue in that area. With treatment, with radiation, with mastectomies, the lymph nodes are getting damaged so they’re no longer able to circulate the lymph fluid properly,” Ballard said.
Treatment involves more than getting hands-on during a therapy session. Wrapping is a big part of the process to apply pressure to the areas where fluid is built up. When Ballard first sees a patient, she will take measurements of the impacted area to see the volume and better track the progress over time. The bandages are wrapped around the limb to act as a pump. It is changed multiple times throughout the week but stays on constantly to prevent the build-up again.
“The first thing that I do is I want to get an occupational profile on them. I want to kind of see how they were functioning in their home and their community prior and I want to see how this condition is maybe limiting them from doing things,” Ballard said. “Where is this diagnosis impeding their function and, based on that, we can look into how we can treat it.”
She gives the example of lymphedema impacting a leg. If the leg is heavy due to fluid build-up and swelling, it can make tasks like getting in the shower difficult, which can be a burden on the patient. Ballard adds lymphedema can also make patients self-conscience. The goal of the work the therapist does is to help manage and control the effects of lymphedema so the patient can continue to live a normal life.
There are signs people should look out for that could contribute to lymphedema. Factors can include skin changes like hard and rough skin and swelling. Ballard says it can also occur as a co-morbidity with other issues like ulcers or wounds.
Located in North Haven, the team at Montowese wants the community to know they are here to help and that hospitals aren’t always the easiest or best option for treatment. Ballard said there are not many outpatient clinics in the state that have lymphedema programs.
“We’re adjacent to several hospital systems that have cancer centers and sometimes people are coming long ways to get their cancer treatments, that maybe we’re a closer clinic that they can come to that we have this specialty, we’re able to deliver these services but they don’t have to go to New Haven or Hartford to get them,” she said. “Typically, when we’re doing that acute phase of reduction, we want to see a person three times a week. That’s tedious. That’s a lot for a person to have to take on. To have to go to the hospital and park. Where here, and we have the ability and the skillsets to do that. We have a beautiful outpatient clinic so it’s really set up to cater to someone who wants to be in a less hospital setting for that kind of treatment.”
Ballard said the condition is manageable with the techniques and expertise that she can offer at Montowese. Not only are they qualified, but the center offers a very comfortable and friendly atmosphere where patients can build relationships with their therapists in a non-clinical setting.
To receive outpatient therapy services at Montowese, a patient will need a prescription from their physician to initiate therapy. The prescription must include a diagnosis and the disciplines requested, for example, physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc. A member of our outpatient care team will be in touch to schedule the initial appointment.
Athena Health Care Systems has four outpatient therapy offices in Connecticut including Beacon Brook Health Center in Naugatuck, Cherry Brook Health Care Center in Canton, Montowese Health & Rehabilitation Center in North Haven, and Newtown Rehabilitation & Health Care Center in Newtown as well as Active Physical Therapy & Wellness in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.