A Blood Clot Almost Killed Me

When my leg started to hurt after an exercise class, I figured I'd pulled a muscle, so I popped two painkillers. They didn't help. And then I stopped breathing.
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It felt good to be back on campus that cold January day in 2012. I was 24, starting the final semester of a master's degree program in communications at Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. My husband, Kyle, was continuing his studies in mechanical engineering. We were newlyweds, trying to figure out our lives and career paths.

It had been a hectic holiday season. I was working part-time as a marketing assistant at a publishing house while trying to keep up with my studies and my fitness routine. I'd recently started taking an intense exercise class that focused on leg strength and core training and I was sore. The back of my left leg had been bothering me for a while, and my leg was swollen when I got up that morning. I figured I'd pulled a muscle so I popped a couple of painkillers and didn't think much more about it.

Later that day, after work, I was walking from the campus bookstore to my first class when suddenly I couldn't breathe. At all. The air just wouldn't go past the back of my throat and enter my lungs. I couldn't believe what was happening -- everything around me grew black at the edges and started rolling in like a cloud. My chest was heaving and my body suddenly felt like it was made of lead. People talk about dying and wonder what their last thoughts might be. Will I think about family and friends? Will I call out to God? Will my life, both regrets and triumphs, flash before my eyes? For me, it was none of these. My only thought was, If I can get into a building, someone will find my body. It was late in the day, the sun was going down, and there weren't many other students around our small campus. I dragged myself into the nearest building, collapsed onto a chair and just sat there for a moment, waiting for the darkness to overtake me. Luckily, it didn't.

I was able to get a trickle of air into my body -- enough to give me the strength to grab my cell phone and call Kyle, who I knew was also on campus. When he answered, I couldn't speak but held the phone to my mouth as I struggled to suck air into my lungs. He kept saying hello and asking if I was all right. Finally I was able to croak out "Bell Hall," the name of the building I was in, and a few minutes later he found me.

Nothing Serious?

Don't ask me why we didn't call 911 or go to the medical center on campus. My breathing seemed to be getting a little better, plus I was young and healthy, so I figured it probably wasn't anything that serious after all. We googled the nearest urgent care facility, about 20 minutes away, and Kyle drove me there. They thought it might be an asthma attack (though I'd never had breathing problems in my life) or a bronchial infection. They did a bunch of tests and sent me home with antibiotics and an inhaler.

The next day I didn't feel any better, though. I talked to my dad, who's a nurse, and he agreed that it might take a little longer for the antibiotics to kick in if I had bronchitis or pneumonia. So I hung in there, but that night my symptoms got much worse. Simply talking left me breathless. And now my leg hurt so much that I couldn't walk. Kyle had to carry me to the bathroom. Whenever I lay down I felt excruciating pain and pressure in my chest. An overstuffed chair in the living room was the only place where I could get halfway comfortable, breathe a little, and doze for a half hour at a time. By the next morning I knew something was really, really wrong. I called my dad, who told me to go to the emergency room right away.

When Kyle and I got to the ER, the doctor immediately ordered blood tests and a CT scan and asked me if I was on birth control pills. I was, and clearly he suspected something. In less than an hour I was on oxygen and hooked up to an IV. I hadn't even considered that my leg pain could have anything to do with my breathing problems, but I found out they were absolutely related. The scans showed that I had developed a blood clot, also called deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, behind my left knee. It had grown and pieces of it had broken off and traveled through my blood vessels and into both of my lungs. That's called pulmonary embolism, or PE, and as many as 100,000 people die of it every year in the United States. Oh, and guess what? The hormones in birth control pills, patches, and rings raise your risk.

My doctor was amazed that I had survived two days with PE in both of my lungs. "If you were not so young and healthy, you never would have lived," he said. In fact, everyone on the staff kept coming into my room and saying, "You don't realize how lucky you are!" When you've had five people in a row tell you that you should be dead, you think, "Oh wow -- I am lucky!" But I wasn't out of danger yet. I was still a ticking time bomb -- and apparently even getting up to go to the bathroom could dislodge the clot and kill me.

I spent five days in the hospital on IV blood thinners to help break up the clots. But the big one in my leg needed a more industrial strength, targeted clot-buster. My doctor explained that they'd insert a catheter into the vein behind my knee and pump in a special medicine called tissue plasminogen activator to break apart the clot. Taking tPA can cause serious bleeding or even a stroke, so doctors sent me home to rest for a few days and to let the blood thinners I'd been on clear out of my system before the procedure.

When I returned to the hospital, the catheter had to stay in for about 24 hours. I was in the critical care unit and wasn't allowed to move at all. I couldn't even sit up to eat or drink. Or pee. I had a urinary catheter for that. Mom and Kyle tried to feed me, but have you ever tried to swallow lying flat on your back? Italian ices were the best I could do. Thank God the tPA did the trick and totally busted that clot. I'll never forget what it felt like as the blood began circulating through my leg and my foot started to regain feeling. It was kind of a buzzing sensation, sort of like when your foot falls asleep and you're trying to wake it up, only much more intense. I realized, "Oh my goodness, I haven't felt my foot in so long!" My doctor said it was a good sign.

Long Road to Recovery

After four days the doctors released me from the hospital for the second time. I returned home with absolutely no energy and ugly compression socks to help my circulation. I had to take blood thinners again, both in pill form as well as shots I needed to give myself in the stomach twice a day. That was not fun. But my energy gradually increased until I could do basic daily tasks without having to lie down and rest. I had to keep taking the blood thinners for months, until tests showed I didn't have any coagulation problems. Once I got off those drugs I really started to feel like myself again. I finished my master's degree, and now I work as an administrative assistant at the university.

I won't have to go back on blood thinners unless I develop another clot. If that happens, then I'll have to be on them for life, according to Lowell G. Hamel, MD, the family physician who's treating me now. I do take a baby aspirin every day. I wonder sometimes if there was anything I could have done to prevent deep vein thrombosis, but my doctors say the only known risk factor I had was being on the Pill. I was young, I'd never smoked, I was exercising regularly. As far as we know, no one in my family had ever had a blood clot. They said I should not take hormonal birth control again. So for now Kyle and I are relying on condoms.

We do talk about whether or not we're going to have kids. At the moment we have no idea. Pregnancy puts you at risk for clots, too, so I'm a little nervous. Kyle's been great about it. In fact, he's been great about everything. A man who can help you wash up when you're bedridden, change your socks, help you to the bedside commode and laugh with you about it? Well, he's proved he's a keeper. It has definitely strengthened our marriage.

Sometimes I wonder why I survived when there are other healthy young women who didn't. I can't answer that; there's no real medical explanation. When I was in the hospital my mom kept saying, "It must not be your time." Maybe God was showing me a path to take. I want to share my experience with as many women as I can because it upsets me that so many aren't aware of potential birth control side effects or of the symptoms of blood clots. I feel it's my responsibility now to speak for those who weren't as lucky as I was. I hope that my story might help someone -- and have the power to save lives.

Who Gets Blood Clots?

As many as 600,000 people in the United States get deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism each year. Hormonal birth control pills, patches and rings all increase your risk of blood clots (you'll see warnings on the drug packaging). The risks vary based on the amount of estrogen and the type of progestin used. Other risk factors include pregnancy, genetics, being immobile, recent surgery, cancer, age, smoking and obesity. Westfall's doctor, Lowell G. Hamel, MD, says that while women need to be aware of the risks, "The probability of it happening to you is low."

Why Flying Puts You at Risk

Sitting still for long periods of time, like when you're stuck in a tiny airplane seat on a long flight, increases your chances of DVT since it allows blood to pool in your leg veins, says gynecologist Lauren Streicher, MD, a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board. Reduce your risk by changing positions frequently. Don't cross your legs; flex and extend your ankle and knees periodically and get up to get your blood flowing. Drink lots of water, since dehydration can increase your risk, too. Consider wearing compression socks or tights on long flights. You can buy them in sporting-goods stores or online. Avoid sleeping pills on overnight flights. While it may be an appealing option, spending hours immobilized is associated with a higher rate of blood clots.

 

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