Last year, after celebrating our anniversary at Disneyland, my husband and I drove home to Sacramento. The nine-hour drive was uneventful: we got home late and fell into bed.
At work the next morning, I climbed the stairs to my office and started my coffee maker. I sat down and took a deep breath. And then another. I was unusually out of breath after walking up just one flight of stairs. Wow, I thought. I'm getting a little out of shape. Time to step it up at the gym.
As the week progressed, so did my labored breathing. I knew that stress can cause shortness of breath, and I'd certainly had enough of it that week. A relative had just had a major health scare, and I was stuck in the middle of a family feud. Plus, I was playing catch up at work because I'd taken time off to go to Southern California.
I vowed to keep an eye on my breathing and if it didn't get better by Friday, I'd call the doctor.
Friday came and with it, so did a new strange symptom: soreness in my right calf. At first I thought it was because I'd added two workouts to my week, one of which was a kickboxing class. But by Saturday, the pain got worse instead of getting better, as a normal workout-induced cramp would.
Sunday morning, my calf throbbing, I called my younger brother who was away at college. Two years earlier, he had suffered a pulmonary embolism. In other words: pieces of a blood clot that originated in his leg had traveled to his lungs. I remembered the terror I felt seeing him in the hospital with oxygen tubes coming from his nose, writhing in pain that no pill seemed to ease.
I talked to him about my symptoms and though mine were different from his (he'd been coughing blood and had chest pains), he encouraged me to call the doctor.
My doctor agreed that the shortness of breath could be stress, but he wanted an ultrasound done on my leg before he left it at that. I sat in his office, fighting back tears, while he called the lab. Please don’t be blood clots, please be stress.
The ultrasound confirmed the worst: I had DVT (deep vein thrombosis), or a blood clot in my right calf. I was transferred to the emergency room immediately and a special technician was called in to do a scan on my lungs. He confirmed what I feared most: I had a pulmonary embolism. I sat alone in the emergency room, tears flowing freely, waiting for my family to arrive.
I was given anticoagulants right away, a shot in my belly of a drug called Lovenox, and a pill called Coumadin that would aid in my body’s breaking up of the clot. Then I was admitted to the hospital for observation overnight.
The doctors told me I was lucky. We’d caught it early, and my brother’s experience had given them vital information that probably saved my life. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, if left untreated, about 30% of people who have a PE will die.
I went home the next afternoon, scared and in pain. I felt fragile, vulnerable. This had crept up out of nowhere. I was barely 30 years old. I took care of my body, exercised regularly, and ate a healthy, plant-based diet.
My brother had been told that his smoking was a major contributor to his PE, but I’d never smoked a thing in my life. The previous weekend I’d been riding the teacups at Disneyland, and this week I was lucky to be alive. I didn't know how it had happened, what had caused it, or how I'd be able to prevent it from happening again.
Over the next few months, I did a lot of research. I read articles in medical journals and checked out message board and support sites online that my brother had recommended. He and I spoke often. I got an appointment with a hematologist (a blood specialist) and pieced together the cause of a situation that doesn't usually happen to young people.
I hope that some of what I've learned can help other people recognize the symptoms of this sometimes fatal ailment.
1. Listen to your body.
The week leading up to my finally calling the doctor was filled with weird little messages from my body. I had shortness of breath, soreness in my right calf, and a strange cramp in my side when I lay down (similar to a runner's cramp). Thankfully, I noticed that something was off with my body, even though I wasn't sure that these were tell-tale signs of a PE. I've since learned that other symptoms of a PE can include chest pain, coughing blood, dizziness, and redness, swelling or heat emanating from the calf.
2. Blood clots don't just happen to older people. Or women.
In fact, men are more at risk for blood clots than women. My brother was misdiagnosed with pneumonia because the technician looking at his lungs at the hospital wasn't looking for the right thing. He wasn't old enough, they said. If you think you may have PE, ask the doctor to look for it specifically. Insist that they do. While they are most common in people ages 60 or older, they can happen to anyone at any age.
3. Birth control is a major risk factor for blood clots. So is being pregnant.
I was on birth control pills when I had my PE. The first thing doctors told me was that I had to stop taking them forever. While birth control isn't the only factor to blame, doctors and researchers are finding increasingly more cases of clotting issues related to birth control. The thinking is that the excess estrogen from the pills helps blood clot. But being pregnant and off birth control doesn't mean you're not at risk; pregnant women are four or five times more likely to develop a blood clot compared to other women.
4. Genetic factors could increase your risk.
Two years ago, my brother suffered a PE. His symptoms were completely different from mine. He was coughing blood and had chest pains, but experienced no pain or symptoms in his legs. The doctors told him his smoking, sitting often in class and being dehydrated had put him at risk. At that time, I should have had genetic testing done to see if we had the same mutations (some genetic mutations are thought to put you more at risk), but I wasn't aware that there were such tests. If you have a family member who has suffered from DVT or PE, ask your doctor about family testing for clotting disorders.
5. Don't cross your legs.
It's comfortable. It's feminine. I know. But crossing your legs restricts blood flow, which encourages clotting. Just don't do it.
6. It's serious.
At the hospital, the doctor told me that 1 in 3 people who have a PE die from it. Most of those deaths are due to people underestimating the severity of their symptoms. They don't go to the hospital, they don't insist on finding the source of their pain or they wait too long. Call your doctor right away if you have any of the symptoms.
It's been almost a year since I was hospitalized with my PE. I'm still taking anticoagulants and I've made changes to my daily habits to ensure once I'm off of them I don't develop another blood clot.
Like anything else, the way to prevent it is to stay healthy: don't sit for too long, stay hydrated, keep your body moving, fuel up on whole foods and keep your mind in a healthy place.
I've learned how to care for myself in a way I never knew how to before. I've started taking yoga classes and riding my bike or walking with my husband every day. I keep a bottle of water in my car and one in my office. I have learned to listen to the tiniest messages my body sends me and respond.
I've gotten closer with my family, especially the brother who shared my experience. I've started making time for friends, hobbies and fun. The housework, the yard work, the errands can wait.
I've never had more energy or felt more alive than I have in the months since my pulmonary embolism. When I left the hospital, I felt afraid that my life would never be the same. And it hasn't been, but it's improved my life, not hindered it.