acute limb ischemia bypass chronic limb threatening ischemia cli clti cost innovation hybrid technique limb salvage Practice techniques vascular lab

MacGyvering as tactical innovation -set your mind free.

The patient is a 70 year old man with risk factors of cigarette smoking, type II diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and hypercholesterolemia who presents with rest pain and gangrene of the tip of his left great toe. Several weeks prior to this, he went to his pharmacy and received a flu vaccination and picked up over the counter topical medication for an ingrown toenail. who developed pain from an ingrown toenail. Several weeks later, the tip of his toe blackened and the pain became unbearable and he came to the hospital.

No pulses, dry gangrene of tip of toe

Physical examination was notable for the dry gangrene affecting the distal phalanx of the left hallux. There was a left femoral pulse, but nothing was palpable below. His forefoot was cool and painful and this pain was relieved with dependency.

Pulse volume recording showed a drop in flow across the left knee and flate waveforms at the ankle, foot, and digits. The ABI was zero. WIfI 2 3 2, Stage 4, potential benefit of revascularization high (reference 1). CTA was performed and revealed patent aortoiliac segment, patent common femoral and profunda femoral arteries, with occlusion of the mid to distal SFA, reconstitution of the above knee popliteal artery with 2 vessel runoff via a patent posterior tibial and peroneal arteries.

CTA VR Reconstruction Shows Reconstitution of AK POP and 2V Runoff via PT and Peroneal Arteries

The centerline reconstructions, adapted from aortic planning, lets me determine the character of the arteries for size, calcification, stiffness, collateralization, and length of occlusion. This was had low density and given the timecourse of the events -from claudication to gangrene, and the lack of collaterization implying an acute process possibly on a chronic lesion, I felt there was likely to be some thrombus burden over a chronic plaque across Hunter’s Canal with occlusion of the geniculate arteries. Usually, when the occlusion is chronic, femoropopliteal occlusions of this type come with an ABI of 0.5-0.7, not 0.

GLASS FP:3, IP: 0 Stage II: Intermediate complexity disease

Global Limb Anatomical Staging System (GLASS) Classification of CLTI (reference 2) through the easy to use SVS calculator came out Stage II: Intermediate Complexity. I had the good fortune of being in the audience when GLASS was presented to a rapt audience in Lyons, France, by Dr. John White in 2017, at the ESVS meeting. I include it because Dr. Devin Zarkowsky on a tweet that generated this post wanted WIfI and GLASS. WIfI I find helpful. GLASS I am still figuring out, because it tends to tell me what I already know: this is a lesion of intermediate complexity that could go either way to open or endovascular.

Treatment options include:

  1. Endovascular -starting with POBA and escalating to various additional therapies such as stents, covered stents, DCB, drug coated stents, atherectomy, thrombectomy, thrombolysis (then any of the previously mentioned).
  2. Bypass with PTFE
  3. Bypass with vein
White Arrows Show the Excellent GSV

The data tells us so far that open or endovascular is broadly equivalent, but experience guides me. For rest pain, any incremental increase of flow will do, and it does not necessarily have to be in-line. For healing major tissue loss, there really can’t be enough flow. Bypasses with good runoff deliver a lot of flow. Bypasses with vein have great longevity and the shorter they are, the longer they last.

So is long patency important? Numerous studies have shown that patency does not impact limb salvage or amputation free survival, going to BASIL Trial (reference 3), but even stretching back to Dr. Frank Veith’s advocacy of PTFE bypass to infrageniculate targets (reference 4), patency does not add to limb salvage beyond the initial wound healing. The patency of a PTFE bypass to a tibial target is less than 20% at 5 years, but the limb salvage rate is a laudable 80% plus, and this is repeated in numerous evaluations of POBA, stents, and every new technology that has accrued in the nearly 4 decades since that paper.

What does patency buy you? Less reinterventions. There is nothing worse to me than having to reintervene within a year or two of an intervention. When a bypass works well, the patients just come for a hello-how-do-you-do for years. The BASIL trial concluded that bypass operations were more expensive, and I dispute this. In 2021, operations were far less expensive than the latest energy weapon, their box you have to purchase, and the catheters you use once and throw away. The argument given by interventionalists is that bypass operations are disfiguring and ridden with complications and that argument holds water as there are many points where vascular surgeons fail or have largely stopped work on investigating and optimizing open surgery. What if bypass surgery could be brought to the level of dialysis access surgery in terms of invasiveness? What if groin complications could be minimized? What if long filleting-type incisions of the thigh and leg could be eliminated entirely? What if edema could be prevented or minimized postoperatively to prevent serous drainage and infections? If you focus on the art of bypass surgery and choose patients well, you can get a quick, minimally invasive bypass with the overall physiologic impact of a Brescia-Cimino AV fistula. After considering endovascular, I chose bypass.

This patient had on mapping excellent saphenous vein between 3-5mm in diameter. He had excellent skin and was not obese. A vertical groin incision could be avoided by making a skin line incision over the saphenofemoral junction and transposing it to the adjacent SFA which was patent. Skin line oblique incisions in the groin heal much better than the standard vertical incisions, and it is possible to mobilize and expose the saphenous vein using an appendiceal retractor and clipping the generous proximal thigh tributary. In this patient, the most proximal incision was well away from the inguinal crease, the generator of wound infections in the groin. Essentially, if there is no groin incision there can be no groin complication.

The distal vein is mobilized first before dropping on the above knee popliteal artery which is exposed through a separate incision. This is because the AK POP space is best exposed over the sartorius, and the vein in this patient was well below (posterior) to the sartorius. The vein was tunneled under the sartorius to the AK POP. With the in-situ technique, the proximal anastomosis is completed, then the valves lysed with a retrograde LeMaitre valvulotome. Doing, after two or three passes, the pulse was strong, and the flow strong enough to fling the blood beyond the foot -a key step. If there is no such flow, if there is a weak pulse, or poor blood flight, I do one more pass of the valvulotome then duplex for any large diverting tributaries and tie them off one by one until good flow is achieved.

I do not mobilize the entire vein (and tie off every collateral) unless I cannot do an in-situ technique. It defeats the purpose of this beautiful minimally invasive procedure.

Femoral artery to above knee popliteal bypass with in-situ vein

He recovered rapidly and was discharged home after a partial hallux amputation by podiatry. In followup, he was feeling better. All of his surgical wounds had healed. Duplex and ABI did find this:

Retained valve, very hard to see but present on B-mode, causing a hemodynamically significant stenosis, with ABI of 0.57

I took him to the angiosuite for repair of this retained valve. Rarely, retained valves occur after in-situ bypasses, but require generally unsatisfactory solutions involving either open valvulectomy and patch venoplasty or stenting of a virgin vein. Valvulotomy is possible, but generally described as an open procedure as well, but I had other plans.

Downstream of this retained valve were tributaries which could be seen on duplex, and therefore accessible with a micropuncture needle. This would then allow for placement of a 4F sheath, through which the LeMaitre valvulotome would pass unhindered, allowing for valvulotomy. I would use this session in the angiosuite to deliver embolization coils to the diverting tributaries as well.

Arteriography reveals a retained valve and diverting AVF’s
Retained valve catches the catheter sent up and over from the other side

LeMaitre is a unique company in that it focuses on vascular surgical operations and arises from the original product and reason for the company the eponymous valvulotome. Because it comes sheathed in a low profile catheter, it is immediately familiar to modern surgeons even though it was made in another century.

Cutting of retained valve with LeMaitre valvulotome​ using ultrasound guidance​

Cutting the valves involved passing the valvulotome several under fluoroscopy through a 4F sheath placed through the tributary seen above. After the valvulotomy, the diverting tributaries, only one of which drained quickly into a deep vein, were coiled. At the end of the procedure, a manual cuff was found and an ABI checked. It was now 1.05.

Diverting tributaries coiled

In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary added McGyver as a verb -“Make or repair (an object) in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand.” A television show from the 80’s and early 90’s, the main character, McGyver, was able to make useful tools out of what was available, allowing him to come out victorious, but usually just survive. It is a useful concept that is a must have in managing complex and dynamic situations. Just because it hasn’t been done before to your knowledge doesn’t mean that it isn’t a simple solution. I have only one ask that LeMaitre flip their blades around and design an ante grade valvulotome. Those who know what I’m getting at know what I am getting at.

The LeMaitre valvulotome allows for in-situ saphenous vein bypass, a prototypical hybrid vascular procedure from the 80’s that portended the endovascular revolution that followed. It is meant to be used intraoperatively, but because of its low profile, it can be applied.

I will allow that this second procedure likely makes any argument to cost moot, but numerous incisions and extra time in the OR is avoided. The patient now has a vein bypass that could last many years which diminishes the need for follow up procedures to maintain assisted patency.

We will be arguing this point for years even after BEST-CLI is presented. BASIL-2 just closed enrollment. Hopefully we will get some clarity.


  1. Mills JL Sr, Conte MS, Armstrong DG, Pomposelli FB, Schanzer A, Sidawy AN, Andros G; Society for Vascular Surgery Lower Extremity Guidelines Committee. The Society for Vascular Surgery Lower Extremity Threatened Limb Classification System: risk stratification based on wound, ischemia, and foot infection (WIfI). J Vasc Surg. 2014 Jan;59(1):220-34.e1-2. doi: 10.1016/j.jvs.2013.08.003. Epub 2013 Oct 12. PMID: 24126108.
  2. Conte MS, Bradbury AW, Kolh P, White JV, Dick F, Fitridge R, Mills JL, Ricco JB, Suresh KR, Murad MH; GVG Writing Group. Global vascular guidelines on the management of chronic limb-threatening ischemia. J Vasc Surg. 2019 Jun;69(6S):3S-125S.e40. doi: 10.1016/j.jvs.2019.02.016. Epub 2019 May 28. Erratum in: J Vasc Surg. 2019 Aug;70(2):662. PMID: 31159978; PMCID: PMC8365864.
  3. Adam DJ, Beard JD, Cleveland T, Bell J, Bradbury AW, Forbes JF, Fowkes FG, Gillepsie I, Ruckley CV, Raab G, Storkey H; BASIL trial participants. Bypass versus angioplasty in severe ischaemia of the leg (BASIL): multicentre, randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2005 Dec 3;366(9501):1925-34. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67704-5. PMID: 16325694.
  4. Veith FJ, Gupta SK, Ascer E, White-Flores S, Samson RH, Scher LA, Towne JB, Bernhard VM, Bonier P, Flinn WR, et al. Six-year prospective multicenter randomized comparison of autologous saphenous vein and expanded polytetrafluoroethylene grafts in infrainguinal arterial reconstructions. J Vasc Surg. 1986 Jan;3(1):104-14. doi: 10.1067/mva.1986.avs0030104. PMID: 3510323.

acute limb ischemia humor limb salvage techniques training

Of Clot, Tofu, and Cheese

The process of clotting is something vascular surgeons take for granted, but patients may have a hard time understanding what a clot is because in most people’s experience, it is rare for someone to see enough blood to form clot. How many patients or even health care providers have seen a tube or a basin of blood clot? So how do we describe clot to patients? I think the solution lies in food.

Most people who know me will say that I propose food as the answer for most things but hear me out. In describing clot, food is particularly salient. Clot is protein made insoluble, and there are many foods that have similar properties. Tofu, jello, and cheese and their making can give context where the word “clot” cannot.

All are made by taking a solution of protein and allowing them to form clumps that cause them to fall out of solution. It may require an acid, as in the case of tofu and cheese, but mere time and cooling may be sufficient as in the case of jello. And like these, clot may take on a soft crumbly quality when it is fresh clot, to a tenacious formed clump when given enough time. The difference is like silken or soft tofu and firm tofu. Or fresh ricotta cheese before it has time to set in its mold and the firmer cheese you get after weeks of curing.
With enough time, you get a hard substance that you can slice with a knife, like a dry cheddar or Parmesan. That is how I think of clot. It can be soft and formless like early jello before it is ready to eat. Or it can be hard and formed like mature dry cheese. The softer it is, the easier it is to dissolve or suck out via gadget or catheter, but there is a time factor to this softness -thing of your jello setting and hardening in your fridge. The harder the thrombus is, the less likely it is you can remove it with catheters and more likely you will have success with an operation as in the first picture. The harder stuff in fact crumbles well like a parmesan cheese and is harder to remove.

Burrata, handmade in Calabria is similar to the kind of semi-mature clot that deforms well but is tenacious and difficult to break up and remove except in one piece.

There are several things to draw from this with regard to devices designed to retrieve clot. Clot can occlude catheters as much as they can occlude arteries. Clot retrieval depends on net output of fresh clot that deforms well and flows well but fails in the hardened brittle clot that is well organized and adherent. Retrieving these crusty dried clot matter may be impossible for a device that depends on clot deformability or a maximum particle size, and these clots are the ones that are more partial to crumbling and embolizing. All devices must accept the fact that the unclogging is done in a flowing circulatory system where items swept downstream have the consequence of killing tissues whose arteries are blocked by emboli. There is always embolism with minimally invasive approaches. These devices make sense for hard to access circuits like the brain, but make far less sense in circuits like the extremities where surgical control is relatively low risk and results in reversal of blood flow -like in TCAR. Each of these devices can cost several thousand dollars. The fact is, operations can be faster and safer because embolism can be controlled and a wider range of clots, and larger amounts of it, can be removed at a lower cost. The first picture shows the results of a popliteal cut down and tibial thrombectomy where inflow was first restored in the below knee popliteal artery, and clot retrieved from each of the three tibial vessels (misleadingly, the tibial thrombus is all lined up), and a simultaneous 4 compartment fasciotomy performed, all under 90 minutes with no use of contrast. Unfortunately, open thrombectomy is a bit of a lost art in that many of the maneuvers and steps required to revascularize a limb successfully with no preoperative imaging requires experience. A younger patient with an arrthymia related embolism and normal soft arteries is approached far differently from an older person with atherosclerosis and diabetes, where open thrombectomy is better suited for the first, and catheter based approaches better for the latter.

Diagnostic and Therapeutic

The open surgical exploration of the extremity arteries is fast becoming a lost art along with the physical examination. In the setting of acute limb ischemia, the first decision in my mind is: was this an embolism? The presence of arrrhythmias, cardiac shunts, and aneurysms may suggest this, the next question is did this patient have a prodrome of limb ischemia related symptoms and history of atherosclerosis. The fact is, you have about 4-6 hours to return blood flow before irreversible neuromuscular damage sets in, maybe less if important collaterals are lost. Choice of procedure then devolves to choices about the most expedient methods for returning blood flow to the extremity, and between endovascular procedures and open surgery, it is rarely possible to manage significant clot burden with endovascular methods without adding the burden of procedural time. These considerations are balanced by patient risk. If the patient cannot tolerate general anesthesia, it is still possible to operate under local anesthesia. Otherwise, one is faced with choices like stenting across clot or common femoral artery. The algorithm is simple -ensure inflow, thrombectomize outflow, check for backbleeding, restore flow, check flow, repeat as necessary downstream. Fasciotomy as needed and close the skin if you can.

Endovascular options deal with the basic physics of trying to pull clot of varying consistency through a small lumen over a long length while not pushing emboli. The needs are simple -a low profile, cheap, over the wire solution for evacuating clot without embolizing nor injuring the patient on a 100cm and 150cm length catheter. Cost wise, open surgery always beats any endovascular option if wound complications of open surgical exposure are avoided. Both methods can’t cover themselves if open fasciotomy wounds keep the patient in the hospital for weeks. The fact is, we already have this magic system in the catheters that we already have on the wall, albeit, they don’t work particularly well if you are dealing with Parmesan, but none of the systems do. I recently declotted a graft fistula with just 6F sheaths, a regular #3 Fogarty ballon, 6mg of tissue plasminogen activator, and was able to salvage the blood and return to the patient.


Vascular surgeons should have as many words for clot as Eskimos purportedly do for snow. There is no one solution to a problem, but all the tools must be available to the vascular surgeon. Ironically, only the simplest are needed most of the time.

acute limb ischemia aortoiliac occlusive disease (AIOD) innovation limb salvage PAD skunk works techniques ultrasound

The shunt as temporary bypass -a modest proposal

The rise of cardiopulmonary bypass life support has also given a rise to the need to keep large, obstructive cannulas in femoral arteries. ECMO cannulas are often kept in for days, and it is not uncommon to discover limb ischemia and infarction relatively late. This can be avoided by placing a distal perfusion cannula to shunt blood to the leg early in the ECMO process. The ECMO cannulas have a convenient side port to send a little flow to a 6F sheath placed in the femoral or popliteal artery. This is an established technique (reference 1, sketch below), and it works despite the modest flows achieved because it does not take much to keep the leg alive. These patients are not walking, nor are they need to heal leg wounds, so just enough blood flow means something just a little more than what they get when the common femoral artery is completely occluded by the life support cannulas. What is fascinating to me is that these shunts can pptentially help to save limbs when used as temporary extracorporeal bypasses when definitive vascular surgical care is not immediately available.

brachial to femoral shunt sketch


When I was a medical student, I took on a research project after my first year where I had a Langendorff preparation of a rat heart (below).

langendorff prep in MRI
an isolated, perfused, beating rat heart placed in a superconducting magnet for NMR spectra acquisition 

My project was to take a rat heart and keep it alive, beating, and even working, through a perfusion apparatus and place this inside a superconductive magnet to obtain Phosphorus nuclear magnetic resonance spectra -intracellular metabolism data including concentration of ATP, intracellular pH, and ATP/ADP ratio. While the project was successful -I am quite proud to have been the only person at Columbia to have successfully acquired NMR-S data with living beating heart, I moved on to other interests and took away this concept: with oxygenated, glucose enriched, isoosmolar fluid perfused at arterial pressure, any organ can be kept alive, possibly indefinitely, including a brain which only recently others have found possible (reference 2) in reputable scientific circles, but the the Nature publishing Yalies were scooped by the Simpsons decades ago (below), and maybe Mary Shelley centuries before,

simpsons head

This is the simple idea. Revascularization is keeping the target vascular bed alive by delivering oxygenated blood. With a shunt, it could be little, it could be a lot, but it certainly is better than zero, and even a little can buy you time.

The breakthrough that I had was several years ago, a patient arrived from another hospital with an Impella pump which did not have a side port like an ECMO cannula. It is a large catheter that augments cardiac output and in the patient that I was asked to see this patient as their leg was cold and pulseless. Their cardiac output was very poor, and they were sustaining an augmented systolic pressure in the 90’s. There was no way to get this patient to the operating room for a revascularization of any sort. It did strike me that the patient had the misfortune of having catastrophic heart failure in the absence of significant athersclerosis and had normal brachial arteries. After discussing the ramifications with the ICU and family, I placed a brachial artery 5F cannula, and connected it to a 5F sheath I placed in the superficial femoral artery below the occlusive common femoral sheath (figure below). A doppler on the tubing connecting the two cannulas confirmed flow and the patient’s left hand maintained a pulsatile oximetry waveform. The leg pinked up and eventually there was a signal in the foot. This managed to perfuse the leg which did better than the patient who succumbed to multiorgan failure from heart failure. The leg did great.

Which leads me to these thoughts. Most hospitals are good at diagnosing large vessel occlusion via CTA. Most hospitals have doctors who can place arterial lines with ultrasound guidance. In the instance of aortoiliac occlusion or femoral occlusion from thromboemboliem, time is a critical limiting factor to limb salvage. Many hospitals do not have vascular surgeons. Many hospitals transfer these patients with a heparin drip but in the ischemic condition. Transfer arrangements may take hours. Why not ameliorate this situation by having an appropriate physician -an anesthesiologist, an intensivist, an EM physician, place an ultrasound guided radial or brachial arterial line, connect to arterial line tubing to a dorsalis pedis arterial line. Tape it all down on the patient after confirming flow (crude sketch below). This would be better than the three extra hours of ischemia the patient gets hit with on transfer. No one would transport a donor kidney without adequate perfusion and protection, but dying legs get transferred all the time with established warm ischemia. If done well, it might turn an emergency procedure into an urgent, semi-elective one. Have the vascular surgeon video conference in to confirm the absence of blood flow and appropriateness of temporary shunting.

radial to dp shunt
radial artery to dorsalis pedis artery shunt

If we are to live in  a world with less vascular surgeons, then the radius of survival has to be extended with use of technology and simple ideas such as this. Comments are welcome.

1. Foltan M, Philipp A, Göbölös L, Holzamer A,
Schneckenpointner R, Lehle K, Kornilov I, Schmid C, Lunz D. Quantitative assessment of peripheral limb perfusion using a modified distal arterial cannula in venoarterial ECMO settings. Perfusion. 2019 Mar 13:267659118816934. doi: 10.1177/0267659118816934.

2. Vrselja, Z., Daniele, S. G., Silbereis, J., Talpo, F., Morozov, Y. M., Sousa, A. M. Mario, S., Mihovil, P., Navjot, K., Zhuan, Z. W., Liu, Z., Alkawadri, R., Sinusas, A. J., Latham, S.R., Waxman, S. G., & Sestan, N. (2019). Restoration of brain circulation and cellular functions hours post-mortem. Nature, 568(7752), 336–343.