I was out of breath. Carrying an empty suitcase up one flight of stairs, and I was out of breath. I commented to my husband that we are really out of shape and have to return to going to the gym regularly. I didn’t think it was anything more than being 51 and letting myself go. What I didn’t realize is that it could have killed me.
It was mid-November. I had a trip to California on business, and as is my practice, I opted for the window seat for all my flights. I hate getting up during flights. I like to settle in near the window and try to forget how long the flight is going to be. That trip I had two flights each way, one short flight to get to a hub, and one flight of four-and-one-half to five hours. The trip went without incident. I returned home, and a week later, we would take our Thanksgiving trip to the Dominican Republic. It was then, while carrying my suitcase upstairs to pack for our trip, that I noticed I was short of breath.
We traveled to Punta Cana, a five-hour direct flight out of Chicago. I had no trouble while we were there. I swam in the ocean every day, and hiked through the ecological park, exploring the lagoons and the paths in between. I always breathe easier in the Caribbean, and this trip was no exception. When we returned home, it was back to work on Tuesday. By Thursday, I noticed it was getting harder and harder to climb stairs. Even the long, low slope of the ramp into the Milwaukee County Courthouse was too much. That night, I went to bed at 8 p.m., exhausted from the effort of the day.
On Friday, I was so out of breath, I had to pause every two to three words to draw another. After a morning meeting, I went to our local urgent care. A chest x-ray showed no signs of pneumonia. I didn’t have any symptoms other than the difficulty breathing. I was lucky to have an urgent care doctor who identified what was wrong. She said I could get a ride or take an ambulance, but I needed to go to the hospital immediately for a CT to determine if I had a blood clot in my lungs. As it turns out, I didn’t have a blood clot, I had several, in both lungs. Statistics indicate that one of three people with bilateral pulmonary embolism don’t survive. I was lucky to have gone in when I did. Actually, I was stupid for not having gone in earlier.
In the emergency room, I asked the doctor if one of these clots could break loose, go to my heart and kill me. She was very kind in answering my rather stupid question. It had been many years since I learned about the circulatory systems in grade school. She told me that the clots likely formed in my leg, broke off and traveled up to, and through, my heart, and then became lodged in my lungs.
I never had any other symptoms of a blood clot. I never had pain, swelling, or discoloration in my legs, common with blood clots due to inactivity. I did have some history which would account for the clots forming. I’m over 50 (51 to be exact), “fluffy” (I avoid the term “obese” because I just don’t like it), had been taking an estrogen-based medication (which I had taken for years in the past but recently resumed), and I had multiple long-distance flights recently. This was a recipe for blood clots.
Blood clots do not discriminate. Blood clots affect all ages. The National Blood Clot Alliance reports that about 100,000 of those with blood clots will die each year, which is greater than the total number of people who lose their lives each year to AIDS, breast cancer, and motor vehicle crashes combined. Women on estrogen-based medications, such as birth control pills, are at risk. People who suffer traumatic injuries or those recovering from surgery are at risk. Some people are genetically pre-disposed to getting clots, and those with cancer have a higher risk of developing blood clots, as if having cancer wasn’t bad enough.
So I had a night in the hospital, learned how to inject myself with Lovenox (that belly fat came in handy for those injections!), and started taking Warfarin. I now have a Medic Alert bracelet to alert emergency responders that I’m on blood thinners. I get my blood tested regularly to make sure that the clotting of my blood is within the target zone. I’ll have a repeat echocardiogram in a few months to see how my heart is doing. I’ll be eating better to reduce the “fluff.” And now I’m a regular reader of the National Blood Clot Alliance’s website. “Stop the Clot, Spread the Word” is their slogan. Learn your risk, and know the signs and symptoms. Blood clots are preventable, and can be safely treated.
For my friends who travel frequently, here are a few tips they have shared:
- Move your legs and feet, and get out of your seat to stretch during long flights. The risk of a blood clot increases with more frequent travel over four hours.
- Drink plenty of water, and avoid alcoholic beverages or caffeine.
- Wear loose clothing so you can move around.
- Don’t cross your legs.
- Avoid sleeping pills or long periods of rest.
So, come fly with me! I’ll now be one of those people who gets up and walks the aisles during long flights, and will happily do so.
For more information on blood clots, the website of the National Blood Clot Alliance is extremely helpful. It includes many personal stories which help you realize you’re not alone, and it provides a tremendous amount of valuable information that could save your life.
During recovery, I’ll be moving at a slower pace. I like to think I’m once again on “island time!”
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