Frank M A Surprising Diagnosis Saved One Man’s Leg

“I can’t say enough good things about my experience there.... The pain wasn’t something I’d want to go through again, but my care was perfect.”

When Frank Mongiello, 73, developed pain in his left thigh in March 2020, he blamed it on strenuous work he’d done at his Lakewood home a few days before. “It felt like a pulled muscle,” he recalls. But instead of fading, the pain persisted and spread to his calf over the course of several weeks. Puzzled, he had a telehealth visit with his physician, Abhijit Chatterjee, MD, a geriatrician at the James and Sharon Maida Geriatrics Institute at Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus (MMCSC), in April.

Abhijit Chatterjee, MD
Abhijit Chatterjee, MD

Dr. Chatterjee took a medical history. “He didn’t have any weakness, tingling, or numbness,” he recalls. “He’d had a COVID-19 test and it was negative. I thought it might be a muscle sprain, so I told him to apply ice and take over-the-counter Aleve.”

Discomfort, Then Desperation

Frank followed the doctor’s orders, but “the pain became more intense,” he says. In June, he saw Dr. Chatterjee. “Frank told me the pain was worse when he stood up from a sitting position, and there was a tender area,” recalls Dr. Chatterjee.

Concerned, he ordered a special type of ultrasound test called a venous Doppler to check for blood clots in Frank’s lower leg. (Frank has a condition that makes him prone to clotting.) The test came back negative. “I prescribed another pain medication,” he says.

Unfortunately, Frank didn’t experience any relief. “It was very difficult to walk,” he says. “I was limping and couldn’t put any pressure on my left leg.” Dr. Chatterjee ordered an MRI, but that, too, showed nothing amiss. He prescribed physical therapy.

Two weeks later, on June 15, Frank awoke to agonizing pain and a rash on his calf. “I went to the nearest emergency room,” he says. He was admitted to another hospital, and for four days, physicians struggled to come up with a diagnosis. They prescribed antibiotics in case there was an underlying infection. The rash and the pain eventually faded and Frank was released, no closer to solving the medical mystery.

A Diagnosis at Last

On June 22, Frank’s pain returned, and his leg became swollen and red. “I went to physical therapy, but it hurt so much the therapist couldn’t touch me,” he says.

He called Dr. Chatterjee, who advised going to MMCSC’s Emergency Department (ED) for another leg ultrasound.

Nurse practitioner Kate Bianchini remembers meeting Frank in the ED. “I sensed he was a person who didn’t have a low pain tolerance,” she says.

As she examined him, she noticed that any time his leg was moved or touched, he experienced an extraordinary amount of pain. Bianchini suspected that Frank might have compartment syndrome, in which there’s an excessive amount of pressure within muscle tissue. A compartment consists of a group of muscles, nerves and blood vessels in the arms and legs. A tissue called the fascia keeps the blood vessels and muscles in place. Trauma, such as a car accident or broken bone, or exercise involving repetitive motions can cause swelling or bleeding within a compartment.

Left untreated, blood flow, which carries oxygen and nutrients, is reduced, and the affected tissues can be damaged or destroyed. If Bianchini’s diagnosis were correct, Frank could lose his leg without immediate surgery. She quickly called critical care surgeon John Gorechlad, MD, who had just left the hospital. After speaking with Bianchini, he turned his car around.

Surgery on Short Notice

Upon examining Frank, Dr. Gorechlad agreed with Bianchini. “I suspected compartment syndrome, too,” he recalls. There was only one way to confirm the diagnosis: by operating. “I got really upset,” says Frank. “I called my wife and handed the phone to Kate [Bianchini]. She explained it all.”

Twenty minutes later, Frank was in the operating room, and Dr. Gorechlad went to work. He made an incision in the fascia of one compartment. As he did, Frank’s leg muscles came bulging out, proof that they’d been under pressure. He opened the remaining compartments, freeing the muscles. The procedure was completed in about 20 minutes.

Recovery and Relief

Frank spent nine days in the hospital. A special device called a wound vac was used to drain the surgical site. The wound was washed and closed before Frank was released.

Frank spent a month in the care of a visiting nurse and physical therapist. He still participates in outpatient physical therapy.

Today, his discomfort is all but gone. In its place is a profound appreciation for the care he received at MMCSC.

“I can’t say enough good things about my experience there,” he says. “I was so impressed by the professionalism of Dr. Gorechlad, Kate, and all of the staff members. They showed that they really cared. The pain wasn’t something I’d want to go through again, but my care was perfect.”

If you have symptoms of a serious medical condition, don’t hesitate to seek emergency care. For more information, visit Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus