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Peripheral Artery Disease: Phylicia Rashad’s Story

Many members of Phylicia Rashad’s family have had peripheral artery disease (P.A.D.), strokes, and heart attacks. In a candid interview with me, she describes how her healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, no smoking, and a Mediterranean diet) has helped her to beat the odds and avoid the disease. To listen to our conversation, please click here. Ms. Rashad begins speaking at about minute 10:30 of the podcast.

Dr. Val: I’m so sorry to hear that 8 of your relatives have suffered stokes or heart attacks. What was that like for you?

Ms. Rashad: All of these relatives of mine had diabetes. At the time of their deaths, P.A.D. was not a recognized condition. It wasn’t regularly diagnosed until the 1990s. I remember my father complaining of his legs cramping a lot. At the time we chalked it up to him being on his feet all day as a dentist, but I wish we had known that it was a sign of something much more serious. Things were different back then – people just accepted that if you had diabetes, you were going to lose toes or limbs. They accepted that as we age, we’d likely have a stroke or a heart attack. No one thought about preventing that from occurring.

Dr. Val: What do you do differently to help insure that you don’t follow in their footsteps?

Ms. Rashad: I eat differently, and have done so for decades. I also get regular exercise. Unfortunately, my hard working family was in the habit of coming home, having dinner and relaxing on the couch after work. This contributed to their diabetes and P.A.D. issues. Interestingly, my relatives who worked on a farm lived into a ripe old age with no chronic disease.

I learned a lot working with dancers – I observed how they ate and how they cared for their bodies, and I tried to copy them. I eat a lot of fish and spinach. I enjoy simple food – it makes my body feel good. I’ll eat egg white omelets for breakfast, with spinach of course. You can tell when people aren’t eating well – they put on weight and their legs can actually look swollen. You can see when people have poor circulation from an unhealthy diet. Ancient cultures understand that food is medicine.

Dr. Val: Tell me about your advocacy efforts for P.A.D.

Ms. Rashad: A friend of mine is a supreme court judge in Atlanta. She called me about 6 months ago and said, “I’m maxed out, they want to take my leg.” As you can imagine, that was an alarming statement so I asked her to explain what had happened. She had been ignoring strange feelings in her leg for some time – it had felt cold and heavy. Eventually an ulcer formed on her toe and it became infected. She went to see a doctor who performed an ankle-brachial index (ABI) and diagnosed her with P.A.D. but it was too late. If she had known to get tested much earlier, she might have been able to prevent the infection and impending amputation. Even though my friend exercised regularly, she was a heavy smoker – and that led to her P.A.D. Because I worked with the P.A.D. Coalition I was able to help to educate her about what to do about her condition, and that made me feel really good. But this just goes to show that education about P.A.D. is critical for Americans. They need to know the risks and what symptoms to look out for. They can learn more at www.padfacts.org

Since September is P.A.D. awareness month, I’m visiting cities known as “P.A.D. hot spots” based on the high prevalence of P.A.D. in these areas – to tell others about my family’s struggle with P.A.D. I’ll be going to New York, Chicago, Miami, St. Louis, and Baltimore.

Dr. Val: What’s the most important thing for Americans to know about P.A.D.?

Ms. Rashad: We need to encourage physicians and legislators to make the ABI part of a regular physical exam for patients at risk for P.A.D.


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