Sarah Fenton enjoyed an active lifestyle in Colorado, which included swimming, biking, and running.
However, at age 35, she started noticing tightness in her left calf and foot. In September 2015, she was preparing for a trail race in Aspen when, on the day of the race, she woke up with a sharp pain in her foot – a pain so overwhelming, she thought she’d broken a bone.
“I thought – did I step on something? My foot’s really bothering me,” Sarah recalls. “I ran the race, but I was in a lot of pain after. I was hobbling around.”
Her friends, active runners themselves, told Sarah she must have plantar fasciitis. A local doctor confirmed the diagnosis.
The plantar fascia is a band of fibrous tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot from the heel to the ball, which supports and protects the arch of the foot. Plantar fasciitis occurs when this ligament is strained, often from overuse, causing tiny tears.
“I always thought I was one of those lucky people who never got injured,” Sarah says. “And then this happened. Not having the ability to run, which was my thing, took a toll on me.”
Sarah wanted to get back to her active lifestyle, so she went to a number of orthopaedic surgeons, podiatrists, and physical therapists in the Boulder area. She bought every available device to stretch her foot. Nothing helped, not even cortisone injections, which became too painful over time.
“I had to stop pretty much all activity,” she says. “It felt like I lost a part of myself. It was hard. I was trying to push through and live my life, but I was always in pain.”
Sarah eventually moved to Washington, Pa. with her husband and two dogs for a new job. While watching the news one night in her new town, she saw a feature about foot research led by Jeffrey Gusenoff, MD, a UPMC plastic surgeon, and Beth Gusenoff, DPM, a podiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Sarah immediately searched online for the husband and wife team to find out more, then contacted them about her plantar fasciitis. Dr. Jeff Gusenoff responded within the week. “You sound like a good candidate for foot fat grafting,” he told her.
In August 2017, Sarah was approved to be a part of the doctors’ clinical trials for foot fat grafting. In this procedure, fat cells are harvested via liposuction of one’s abdomen or thighs. Once processed, these fat cells are injected into the affected area of the foot to increase its cushion and minimize pain on impact. In Sarah’s case, fat cells were injected into the thickest part of her fascia to repair the overused ligament and give her the ability to stretch it again. Today, foot fat grafting is out of the clinical trial phase and offered as an elective procedure.
For the first few weeks after the procedure, the two doctors instructed Sarah to walk but not run. By her second follow-up appointment, they cleared her to swim and do some light elliptical exercises.
“I was skeptical at this point because I still had some pain,” Sarah admits.
But, around month six after her procedure, Sarah reached a breakthrough in her recovery. “I stopped noticing my foot for the first time in a long time,” she says. “Up until then, I was always aware of that body part because of the intense pain.”
By month nine, Sarah was cleared to run. She eased back into the sport she loved, running slowly and for short distances. Since the arch of her foot often felt tired, Sarah worried that the procedure wouldn’t work out long term. She reached out to Dr. Beth Gusenoff via email, who told her to listen to her body and keep to the recovery schedule.
Sarah followed the doctor’s advice. She didn’t rush her recovery and wore an orthopaedic boot every night to stretch the arch of her foot. By the time she went to her last follow-up appointment, she had progressed to running longer distances with little to no pain.
Just a year after her procedure, Sarah was back at 100 percent health, foot-wise. Most importantly, she could run again without pain.
She makes sure to protect her feet. Every shoe she owns has significant arch support, and she still wears her orthopaedic boot every night – she even brought a travel-size one on vacation to Europe this summer.
“It’s like I got part of my life back,” Sarah says. “I feel so lucky to live in the Pittsburgh area. The last time I saw Beth and Jeff, I gave them a hug and told them what great work they are doing.”
Sarah’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.