A Companion’s Reflections on Wittlinger Clinic

The daughter of one of our members has very kindly written up her thoughts on the week she spent with her mother at the Wittlinger Clinic in Austria.  They travelled there at their own expense in February 2018 for treatment for lymphoedema.

Thinking of going to Wittlinger Lymphoedema Clinic  for Treatment?

This is the experience I had of a one-week trip to Wittlinger with my mother, Gay, who developed lymphoedema in both legs after cancer treatment.   We did a ‘taster week’.

Should I go to Wittlinger?

If you have lymphoedema and you can afford it, or can find a way to have it paid for, absolutely yes.   We were extremely impressed and mum saw tangible improvements in her measurements in just a week.  What’s more, mum found it a huge learning experience and was able to get a lot of questions answered and useful tips on dealing with lymphoedema.

What’s a typical day like?
Gay getting in some extra exercise with the Nordic Walking poles

The schedule is different every day and you get your schedule for the next day at dinner.  On average, we had our first half-hour exercise class at 7am.  Then we would usually have breakfast and maybe a bit of a break before the first MLD session which might be at 10am for an hour.  What we hadn’t anticipated was that mum would have both of her legs bandaged 24-7 from her first MLD session on Monday.   So we had to set aside a half-hour before each MLD session to remove and roll-up her bandages so that they could be reapplied by the therapist at the end of the session.

After the MLD, there might be a break and we would usually do a walk into Walchsee or go for a coffee.  Lunch would be from 12 and sometime in the afternoon mum would have her second MLD session (we paid €90 per day so that she could get a second session every day).  Before or after that session we would do a longer walk and/or another coffee, and of course take off the bandages.  On two days there were optional extra oedema exercise classes which we did in the afternoon – there are optional activities every day so you just see how it works with the rest of your schedule and what you’re interested in.  The second mandatory exercise class of the day was at 5pm for a half hour.  Dinner was at 6 and the evenings were free.  We generally didn’t do much in the evenings.  Sometimes people had a glass of wine at the bar and you could certainly go into the village if you were so inclined.  But we generally flopped and got ready for the next day!

What’s so great about Wittlinger?
1) Expertise and vast experience:   

The clinical director,  Dr Christine Heim, has been at Wittlinger specialising in lymphoedema for 18 years.  One of mum’s therapists, Barbara, has been doing MLD there for the same amount of time.  They treat lymphoedema (and lipoedema) 24-7.  There is no substitute for this kind of experience.  They have seen it all!

2) Comprehensive approach:   

It’s not just MLD, doctor visits and 24-7 bandaging.  There are also the two mandatory exercise classes a day and additional voluntary classes like aquarobics or yoga.  The food is designed to help with weight loss which they encourage if you need it.  For their average patient who comes for three weeks, there seem to be other services like a dietician and psychologist visits. As we were on the taster week,  we didn’t experience these.

3) Hotel feel not clinic feel: 

It’s a really nice place and doesn’t feel clinical, despite most people going around in bandages on their arms or legs!  There’s a nice bar in the lobby, swimming pool etc.  The rooms are excellent and have balconies.  Ours had a great view of the beautiful snowy valley.

4) Incredibly helpful staff: 

There was really nothing that was too much trouble to the staff.  Everybody was focused on patient care.  They described it as a team effort – you and they worked together to improve your condition.

5) Healthy and Varied Food: 

The food was all healthy and (for a one-week stay at least) it was varied.  There was always a vegetarian option in every meal.  Mum’s situation is tricky as she is a vegan who eats fish, which we had told them in advance, but in fairness is a bit more difficult to deal with!  Initially this was a bit of an issue (although we had brought food from home so it was OK) but once the kitchen staff realised, they did their best to give her extra fish, beans and soya milk and yoghurt.  We were able to buy canned fish easily at the local Spar so it was fine.  But for most people, the food will be grand!  It might not set your world on fire but it’s nice enough and there’s a good bit of choice.

Walchsee in winter
Walchsee in winter
6) Lovely village with necessities available: 

Walchsee is stunningly beautiful and we did lots of walks in the snow, including around the lake.  There was sledding too but we didn’t find the time!  There are plenty of shops with all necessities (the local Spar is a 10-15 minute walk and much more like a supermarket than in Ireland).  There is an organic cheese factory and shop right next to the clinic and shops with gifts.  There are also really nice cafes and (presumably) really nice restaurants although we had all our meals at the Wittlinger.  You could cross-country ski if you had your own gear and I’m almost positive you could rent equipment but since I’d never skied, I would have had to go to the neighbouring Kossen to learn and I never found the time.  Downhill skiing was also available nearby.  In the summer there are apparently a series of different activities like hiking and cycling.

Any downsides?
1) Cost: 

There’s no getting around it, unless you get approved on the HSE’s Treatment Abroad Scheme, or find a miracle insurance company (please tell us if you do! We already got turned down flat by VHI!), you’ll have to pay privately.  The ‘taster week’ that we went on is the best deal:  €820 all inclusive (this includes one MLD session per day, if you want an extra session, it will cost €90 per session).  For an accompanying person it costs €60 per day full board including use of all facilities which I thought was excellent value (this includes sauna/steam-room and jacuzzi which the patients are not advised to use so accompaniers have full access!).  Beyond the ‘taster week’ it is more expensive but you have to ask for an individual quote – we were told to expect at least €1,000 a week).  The bandages that they provided (and that you take home) cost €160 – but that’s for two legs, so for many people it would be less than that (and you can bring your own bandages if you want).

2) Language:

Most people speak German and the classes are held in German.  They can hardly be blamed for this since the clinic is in Austria!  The staff largely can speak English.  Exercise classes in German were easy to follow, and we had no communication problems. But as far as socialising was concerned, that was more tricky. There weren’t too many patients during our week who were comfortable speaking English – most were Austrian or German.  There were also a couple of Italians and us.  Other weeks might be different as there are patients from US, Canada and Australia at times.  We were extremely lucky to be placed at a meal table (you keep the same meal table for the whole week) with a wonderful Austrian woman called Margarete who had good enough English and who had been to Wittlinger for over ten years.  She  could not have been more helpful to us as we learnt the ropes.  The only activities we couldn’t really do because of language were the optional relaxation or meditation classes as we didn’t think listening to German would be that relaxing!  The only way you might avoid this, if you had flexibility on your dates, would be to ask the administrator (Rosi was our contact) if there are English-speakers booked for that week.

Gay enjoying a coffee in Walchsee
Gay enjoying a coffee in Walchsee
What is there to do for an accompanying person?

Loads.  There are lots of useful things to do for the patient like helping to take off bandages and running errands here and there.  I also did all the exercise classes with mum which I was welcome to do and I found them very good.  I also worked a lot on my laptop (I paid €12 for the week for internet on all the devices in our room).  This was very possible since evenings were free after around 6:30/7, and you get an hour off whenever the patient is at MLD and lots of small gaps in between.  I also went for runs, used the gym (it’s not amazing but decent enough) and used the pool facilities.  And as mentioned cross-country skiing could be an option.

What did we learn that wasn’t on the website?

This is a random collection! The welcome book they give you in the room is also very helpful for info.

  • Thanks to Karina we knew to fly direct to Munich and then got a shared taxi from Four Seasons Travel tirol-taxi.at which took about 1 hour 15 each way and was very good. It’s probably not the cheapest option (€200 return for the two of us) but the train option didn’t seem too convenient.
  • Taking bandages off two legs twice a day took an hour per day, and that was both of us working together. So that is one of the pluses of having an accompanying person.  Having said that if you have lymphoedema in only one arm, for example, this would be a lot easier and quicker.
  • There’s a fridge in your room!
  • There are washing machines, a dryer and irons in the basement. You can buy tokens at reception and get a hold of some washing powder (or bring it with you).
  • There are well-stocked shops nearby.
  • They sell very cool Velcro sandals for €54 that work well when legs are bandaged.  Alternatively, bring your own larger, wider shoes from home if your legs are to be bandaged.
  • English channels are available on the televisions in the rooms, just keep looking (we didn’t find them until Thursday when Margarete told us!).
  • There are moneyboxes at the bar to give tips to the kitchen and wait staff.
  • It’s actually fine to walk in the snow most of the time, it’s not at all slippy (watch the ice though!)
  • There are beauty treatments available but everybody books manicures and pedicures months in advance for the last day!
How do I find out more about Wittlinger Clinic?

The website is very good.  Also feel free to contact us through Lymphoedema Ireland if you have any questions.

 – Sinead and Gay