Real-Life Experience with Lymph Sparing Liposuction

In this blog, Cat K shares her real-life experience with lymph sparing liposuction to treat her lipedema.

When the Solution is More Painful Than the Problem

My first Lipedema surgery was at the end of 2019. For weeks after, I did not open my laptop, except the occasional Netflix in bed. To say I was underprepared for the pain and disruption that came with this surgery does not do my folly justice. I was both overly confident and naive. Stubborn and headstrong. And ultimately, humbled and overcome. It stripped me of my desire and motivation to write and document the journey. Quite frankly, it tore me of nearly everything other than pushing through to wake up, muster enough energy to smile at work, and to get home, immediately ready for bed.

Pain is one thing, and overall, I’m able to deal with it. It’s temporary, and a natural partner to any surgical procedure. I anticipated the physical pain, but what I didn’t expect was how long it would linger, and how much it would affect my life in every tiny moment. When I need lip balm, water, or a tissue, the stretch aches. When my feet are cold and I need to put on socks, putting them on myself is out of the question.

Get yourself a friend like mine. Livia drove from Chicago to St. Louis to care for me, including putting my socks on for me, despite my protests that I could handle it on my own.

Perhaps more intimately, going to the bathroom. My god, what kind of torture are compression leggings at 2 AM, and all you can do is think of waterfalls and dripping sinks and rainstorms. Oh, and you also should be sure to drink as much water as physically possible, to help with the swelling. WTF.

While we’re on the topic, what kind of hell are compression garments?

Compression garments (def.): Adult-size Spanx shrunk to the size of a toddler’s leggings, which you must pull up and over your bruised, swollen legs. Then figure out how to take them on and off when you need to use the toilet.

One-month post-surgery and this single piece of clothing is still a pain in my ass — literally. I’m back to driving, I’m back to work, and I can even switch to just one layer of compression (instead of two) when I sleep. Yet by 2 PM, I’m sitting at my desk, struggling to breathe because the pantyhose layer is so tight on my stomach.

When I stand up to stretch, the back of the hose hugs my legs so tight that I have dark red rings around my knees and ankles. In all honesty, today, I gave up. I took off the pantyhose layer in the office bathroom, but I took them off so quickly and had a strong enough head rush that I almost passed out. In the work bathroom. Pants-less.

Bruised and discolored legs and one of many insertion points.

On the bright side, the ridiculousness of my bathroom stupor made me laugh and re-center. The journey has been painful, the solution is painful, and the freedom yet to come will be worth it. Until then, I’m dedicated to sharing the ugly truths and brilliant successes with those who are looking for answers. Or even for those who are just curious; It’s gross and fascinating.

The Lipedema Surgery

  1. I’m traveling from Austin to St. Louis for all five procedures. I arrive the day before surgery for pre-opt (weigh-in, before photos, measurements, etc.). I take it easy the day before surgery and start taking pain medications before bed. These make me tired, but not terribly so.
  2. The morning of surgery, I wake up at 6:30 AM for a light breakfast. I have dry toast and cereal with non-dairy milk. Then I take additional pain medications. Surgery is at 8:30, so I go back to bed for a nap before heading to the office.
  3. Upon arrival, the doctor gives me more meds. I strip down — modesty has no place in these surgeries — and head into the surgery room. Almost immediately upon getting situated, the nurses show me how to use the laughing gas. Like a rookie, I tell them I’ll proceed without it. My friends, DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE.
  4. Now it’s time to get hole-punched. The nurses quickly push lidocaine-infused needles all around my legs, then plug the needle holes with tiny tubes. After I’ve gotten enough holes added, they hook up the tubes to IV-size bags of tumescent liquid. I had five bags of this pumped into my legs to loosen up the fat and numb me. Please note, I was not numbed as the fluid went in. It hurt. Luckily there were enough drugs to feel the pain but not care all that much. It would’ve been even better if I had the laughing gas. After the five bags are done, my legs are rock-hard.
  5. After I’m successfully full of tumescent, the doctor is ready to suck out all the fat, cysts, and excess liquid. And boy did he — 9,000 ml worth.

The tiny holes previously used for the tubes are repurposed for the small suction wand. For the next several hours, I watched the doctor push the rod around and suck out a mix of fat, liquid, and blood.

  1. That’s it. The nurses clean me off, give me my shirt back, and then help me get into the two layers of compression, the first layer being pantyhose and the second layer medical-grade compression leggings. I was later released to my caretaker and friend until post-op the next day.

The Recovery

This brings me back to the beginning: recovery sucks. The first two nights were particularly tough to get through, for three main reasons.

  1. My puncture holes leak everywhere. The tumescent liquid is still leaking, and now there’s blood. I have padding, but it soaks through. I got absorbent pads from the hotel, but I still leak all over their bedding.
  2. Going to the bathroom. Rolling compression up and down the legs is another circle of hell.
  3. The first shower. Instructions were to wait until Day 2. I was to take off one layer at a time, waiting at least ten minutes in between. And boy, did I not have a choice. After removing layer two, I did end up kneeling on the bathroom floor, pants-less. I then had to take a 20-minute rest before I could proceed.

Like the naive, hard-headed person I am, I had a post-op appointment the day after surgery and then proceeded to the airport to fly home. I cannot begin to tell you what a mistake this was. I needed wheelchair assistance through security and to the plane, and then from the plane to my sister picking me up. Pro-tip, even if it should be obvious:

Listen to the professionals. Don’t travel home the day after surgery, when you’re in pain and oozing fluid.

Fast forward one month, and I’m sitting on my couch, no longer leaking fluid. I can drive again, I can put on my socks, and I’ve gotten my average time to get dressed down to about 15 minutes. I’ve lost 26 pounds, specifically from my inner thighs and knees. I don’t have full feeling in my legs just yet, but I can walk almost normally, stretch carefully, and next week I plan to return to yoga.

For all the pain, cursing, and moments of regret when I couldn’t get my compression hose over my butt, I’ve stuck to the schedule and am ready for the next procedure. Despite the solution feeling more painful and desperate than the Lipedema itself, I see small pieces of progress each day, signaling that I’m on the right track. After a lifetime of chronic pain and disappointment, I consider this a win.

If you’re curious about Lipedema and think you might have it, you can read more about my journey before diagnosis here. If you’re interested in learning more from my doctor and his incredible team, visit Dr. Wright’s website here.