South African Woman Raises Buerger’s Disease Awareness

When Melinda Jansen van Vuuren was 13 years old, she began smoking cigarettes. For years after, Melinda smoked up to 15 cigarettes daily. Although she has since quit smoking, Melinda now faces a health issue associated with smoking: Buerger’s disease. The Mirror reports that due to this condition, Melinda is at risk of losing four fingertips. She is now hoping to raise awareness around Buerger’s disease and the risks associated with long-term tobacco usage. 

Melinda’s Story

Using tobacco is a major risk factor associated with Buerger’s disease, a rare blood vessel disease that often affects the arms and legs. In Melinda’s case, she first noticed symptoms towards the end of 2021. Her fingertips, which turned purple in color, became sensitive to temperature changes. She was also experiencing finger pain. Just two weeks after these initial symptoms, gangrene set in. Gangrene is body tissue death due to bacterial infections or a lack of blood flow. Because Buerger’s disease causes blood vessel inflammation, this inflammation can then lead to gangrene.

Unfortunately, Melinda finds it difficult to perform any actions involving her hands. Since she previously worked as a nail technician, this condition has even made it difficult for her to do her job. 

There are few therapeutic options for Buerger’s disease. The first is to stop using tobacco, which Melinda has done. Other treatment options include medications to treat blood clots or clogged blood vessels, spinal cord stimulation, compression of the extremities to increase blood flow, and amputation. For Melinda, doctors chose not to surgically remove her fingertips. Instead, she is undergoing autoamputation, in which the dead or necrotic tissue spontaneously detaches from the healthy tissue. 

Now, Melinda hopes to raise awareness around her condition and about the dangers of tobacco. She explains that this condition has made her face a lot of depression and anxiety, and urges people to understand that tobacco usage can have far more widespread impact than some believe.

About Buerger’s Disease

Also known as thromboangiitis obliterans, Buerger’s disease causes blood vessel inflammation, culminating in blood clots and swelling in the arteries and veins. Nearly all Buerger’s disease diagnoses are associated with tobacco use – whether smoking tobacco or using chewing tobacco. Doctors believe that tobacco use, in conjunction with genetic predisposition or immune response, causes this inflammation. Risk factors include being male, being under 45 years old, and having chronic gum disease. While a high percentage of those with Buerger’s disease are males between ages 20-40, it is becoming increasingly more common in females and older individuals. Symptoms include:

  • Raynaud’s phenomenon
  • Extreme pain in the arms and legs, especially when resting
  • Limping when walking
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
  • Discoloration of the hands and feet
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Open sores on the fingers and toes
  • Thrombophlebitis (inflammation and clotting of certain veins) 
  • Pain or heaviness in the abdomen
  • Gangrene (typically in the fingers and toes) 

Learn more about Buerger’s disease.

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn has an educational background in writing and marketing. She firmly believes in the power of writing in amplifying voices, and looks forward to doing so for the rare disease community.

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