I haven't experienced it firsthand, but I imagine removing a limb has to be a harrowing experience for both the doctor and the patient. And that trauma must be upped to the nth degree if a surgeon removes a leg without having taken all possible actions to save it.

Leaders in the field gathered here in Chicago last week to discuss some of the latest advances in this area of medicine at the Amputation Prevention Symposium, which wrapped up Saturday. Jihad Mustapha, M.D., a cardiologist and researcher with Metro Health Hospital in western Michigan, founded the conference five years ago with the "goal of providing every physician the opportunity to embrace innovation and the vital role emerging therapies play in preventing amputations," he said in a recent news release.

Doctors perform some 185,000 amputations in the United States annually, and one of the top causes is vascular disease, specifically diabetes and peripheral arterial disease. PAD is a circulatory problem that narrows the arteries and blocks blood from flowing to limbs, leading to amputation. One specific form of peripheral arterial disease, called CLI, is responsible for upward of 75,000 major amputations a year, one expert estimates, costing the health care system billions. About half of those who have an amputation stemming from vascular disease die within five years — a mortality rate higher than breast, colon and prostate cancer.

But often, amputations performed because of critical limb ischemia are unnecessary and preventable, and that's been the focus of Mustapha's research and the symposium, which drew about 750 attendees this year. The doctor — who has earned the nickname "The Leg Saver," and carries an interesting backstory — believes the tide is starting to turn in preventing amputations.

"There are many available therapies for patients with critical limb ischemia that didn't exist before," Mustapha told me last week. "I really want to send the clear message that, if a patient receives an amputation without proper evaluation in this day and age, that's unethical and almost criminal in 2015."

Mustapha and Metro Health have worked as pioneers in the field of limb prevention. Just last year, the doctor was one of the first in the country to use a new drug-coated balloon that allows him to reopen the narrowed arteries in patients' thighs and knees due to PAD. That was one of several new medical devices debuted at Metro Health to treat the vascular disease.

Medical leaders around the world are taking note of the work going on in West Michigan, the Grand Rapids Press reports. He's taught his techniques to folks from Japan, China, South Korea and Australia. "His reputation is growing by leaps and bounds," the Press quotes one source in its profile piece. "He's extremely innovative and forward-thinking. Far ahead of the curve."

Often, unnecessary amputations related to PAD happen because doctors lack education about new treatment methods, and are still stuck on old solutions. Physicians make up most of the attendees at the symposium, but the Leg Saver hopes to eventually draw more hospital administrators. Without executive support at Metro Health, their program likely wouldn't have blossomed into what it is today.

"I would just like to encourage hospital administrators to create programs within their hospitals on CLI awareness for their physicians and health care providers, and also for their communities," Mustapha says. "It's definitely a deadly disease that is silent, and without awareness, we can't reach those patients that really need help."