Kathy's left foot is so swollen, she can't wear a sock or shoe. If she hits it on something, the thin skin will split open. If the weather is humid, her skin turns bright red and is hot to the touch. Once, while Kathy was shopping, a woman screamed when she saw her inflamed foot.
Kathy, 46, is suffering from a rare and debilitating nervous system disorder called reflex sympathetic dystrophy or RSD. It’s also known as complex regional pain syndrome, and it is a chronic systemic disease, characterized by severe pain and inflammation. Although RSD usually results from an injury to an extremity, doctors are still unclear as to what causes it.
"I’ve never seen a case like this in my entire career," ER physician Dr. Travis Stork says.
Kathy once led an active life. She skied, rode horses, and even ran track. But in 1996, a football player accidentally stepped on her foot with the cleat of his shoe. Although she had a slight break in her skin, Kathy didn't have any broken bones, and doctors assumed her foot would heal. But after a few weeks, it got worse.
"It felt like being stabbed with a hot poker," Kathy says, "all around the foot was sensitive to touch, and then it progressed into spasms. It felt like all of the muscles being torn off the bone."
Since her diagnosis in 2003, Kathy's RSD has gotten progressively worse. She is now in Stage 4, which involves the inner organs and is a level most patients never enter. The prognosis for RSD varies from person to person. Remission from symptoms may occur, but there is no known cure.
Despite that, Kathy retains a positive outlook.
"I don't like the poor me syndrome," she says.