Dr. Sarah Wong, a plastic surgeon at SHN, is one of only a handful of surgeons in Canada trained to perform a life-changing procedure to cure lymphedema. And now, thanks to generous donors and determined SHN volunteer Mary Murphy, she has the equipment she needs to do so.
Lymphedema is a chronic swelling that happens when fluid doesn’t flow well through the lymphatic system and accumulates in the body’s tissues. It is prevalent in breast cancer patients who often need to have their lymph nodes removed to reduce the risk of their cancer spreading to the lymphatic system. As a result, small vessels are destroyed that carry blood and fluid from their limbs. Patients with lymphedema experience painful swelling in their limbs, fingers or toes because blood can’t properly flow and excess fluid isn’t circulated back throughout the body.
“A lot of patients learn to live with this painful illness,” says Dr. Sarah Wong, an SHN Plastic Surgeon and one of few physicians able to cure lymphedema in Canada. “Those of higher socio-economic status can pay for weekly lymphatic massages, compression garments and exercise routines to manage this disease. But, here in Scarborough, that’s not always an option for our patients suffering from lymphedema.”
Dr. Wong trained at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the largest cancer center in the United States, where she learned to perform the cutting-edge procedure. Using a machine called the SPY Elite Fluorescence Imaging System, a.k.a. the SPY machine, she can see lymph channels the size of a hair and reconnect the blocked pathways.
“I compare it to taking the collector route on Highway 401,” says Dr. Wong. “When the express route is blocked, you take an alternate route through the collector. Then, you’re reconnected to the express once you get past the traffic jam.”
For Dr. Wong to perform this life-changing microsurgery, however, she needed the SPY machine – a rare piece of equipment that SHN didn’t have. Then, along came Mary Murphy.
Mary, a long-time supporter and former Board Member of SHN Foundation, first heard about the SPY machine during a presentation from Dr. Wong herself. She was even able to see Dr. Wong perform the surgery with a borrowed SPY machine on a patient who had been in and out of the hospital to manage her lymphedema. The patient was in constant pain and hadn’t even been able to wear her wedding ring for over ten years due to the extreme swelling.
And then, after a remarkable yet straightforward procedure, she was cured.
Mary also met Dr. John You, a vascular surgeon at SHN who could use the machine to perform life-saving procedures for patients suffering from intense wounds.
“As a vascular surgeon, I’m responsible for making sure there are no blockages in patients’ veins or arteries,” says Dr. You. “When limbs don’t get enough blood flow, caused by a cut or an injury resulting in a wound that won’t heal properly, we have to decide whether or not we can salvage it or if we need to amputate.”
Before the SPY machine, Dr. You and his colleagues would need to use subjective methods to determine whether they needed to amputate. Even after performing angioplasty or bypass surgery to improve blood flow, they have to wait to see if the wound will heal properly. They would look at the limb, feel it to see if it’s warm or if they feel a pulse, and then decide if they could save it.
“After seeing the extraordinary work that Dr. Sarah Wong and Dr. John Yu could do with this machine, I was committed to finding the money for them to buy it,” says Mary. “Their innovation, leadership and drive, pushing to get the best health care for our Scarborough community is inspiring and absolutely needs to be supported. The improvement in care and cost savings that this machine could deliver made the decision easy; not only to support this purchase personally but to take this extraordinary opportunity to others and provide them with the opportunity to make a difference in Scarborough.”
Mary set out to raise the nearly $200,000 it cost to purchase the SPY machine. Within a year, she had secured enough donations to make the SPY machine a permanent fixture at SHN’s General hospital.
“Certain hospitals and communities have more resources to raise money to purchase equipment like this,” Mary continues. “It is essential that we reach out and let people know that the impact their donations have on community hospitals is huge. We have physicians that are able to perform rare and cutting-edge procedures – and yet they don’t have the tools to do it. The hospital must raise significant funds to ensure they meet their local community share, including 10% of all infrastructure costs and 100% of all medical equipment.”
SHN is one of the few hospitals in the GTA that have the SPY machine, and the possibilities aren’t limited to Dr. Wong’s cutting-edge procedure to cure lymphedema.
“The SPY machine gives us an objective way to see if the blood is flowing to a limb and if revascularization is possible,” Dr. You says. “By seeing this, we can make a better-informed decision on something that will absolutely change someone’s life – and sometimes save it. It can be the difference between salvaging a leg or amputating it.”
Dr. You and Dr. Wong worked closely together to develop the first specialized wound clinic in the entire GTA at SHN’s General site over ten years ago. Combining the vascular and plastic surgery specialties into one location allows a true multidisciplinary approach to patient care. This patient-centred philosophy makes it more convenient for patients who often must see both types of physicians to treat their wounds.
“We’re fortunate that our plastic surgeons have a high interest in wound care,” Dr. You continues. “Most of our patients’ wounds are chronic and can take multiple visits seeing multiple physicians to heal. They’re also able to see the same surgeons each visit, ensuring consistent follow-up and care.”
Since SHN’s wound clinic opened, trainees and residents from the U of T School of Medicine have come through and mimicked the clinic at other hospitals, including Sunnybrook.
“The SPY machine and our wound clinic have the potential to put us on the map,” Dr. You says. “The work we’ve done to create the wound clinic and the cutting-edge procedure to cure lymphedema that Dr. Wong is doing are truly innovative. The work we do often gets overlooked because SHN is a community health network.”
Since the purchase of the SPY machine, made possible by determined volunteer Mary Murphy and generous donors, Dr. Wong is looking forward to changing the lives of those living with lymphedema.
“When I first brought this surgery to Canada, it was considered experimental,” says Dr. Wong. “There was no support from the government, and it wasn’t an insured procedure, so I did a lot of my first surgeries pro bono. The passion and dedication of our donors and volunteers motivates me to continue pushing forward. To continue performing innovative procedures and ensuring our amazing SHN team gets the recognition we deserve. I’m tremendously grateful for Mary’s advocacy and for leading the charge in not only purchasing this machine but for believing in the future of health care in Scarborough.”
It is the resilience and perseverance of our dedicated volunteers, generous donors and passionate medical staff that make a difference in Scarborough. Together, we’re building a brighter, healthier future for our diverse community.
If you would like to donate to Scarborough Health Network, visit SHNFoundation.ca/DONATE today.