March is a time of year to look forward. Soon winter will be over, the clocks will move ahead, birds will come back, daffodils will begin to pop up and of course, there will be parades and green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. Not nearly as jazzy but much more importantly, March is national blood clot awareness month. The perfect time to learn about the dangers of a blood clot and what to do to keep yourself safe from a deep vein thrombosis or worse, a pulmonary embolism.
This is serious stuff — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a whopping 900,000 people fall victim to blood clots every year. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, how old you are, whether you are a man, woman or child — a blood clot does not discriminate.
Unfortunately, a fair number of people lose their lives due to a pulmonary embolism. According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, every year more people die from a blood clot than from HIV, breast cancer and motor vehicle accidents combined!
We hear about the famous: DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall who passed away just weeks ago at age 56; rapper Heavy D after an extended plane trip; comedian Gary Shandling; newsman David Bloom while in Iraq reporting on the war; Red Sox first baseman Harry Agganis, also known as The Golden Greek, at only 26 years old; actors Jimmy Stewart and June Allison; ’50s heartthrob tenor and actor Mario Lanza at 36 and the list goes on…
Then there are those who live to tell about it — tennis great Serena Williams; five-time NBA All-Star Chris Bosh; NASCAR driver Brian Vickers; pro golfer Joey Sindelar, who lived, his wife said, because he was smart enough to ask for a medic while playing the third hole during a tournament; TV host Regis Philbin — and ME!
How lucky I was — buzzing along minding my business living a busy life and wham — a pulmonary embolism. Truth be told, I’d spent a few days trying to avoid what I thought was the flu and maybe a budding case of pneumonia, until even I knew whatever was happening could no longer be ignored. It was the ER doctor, trusting his gut, who ordered the tests that confirmed a PE. What a shock — a blood clot in my lung was the furthest thing from my mind. They tell me I came pretty close to the end — so to say that I am grateful is an understatement.
Scary for sure, but the good news is most blood clots are preventable. Since only a small percent of clots are caused by inherited clotting disorders, knowing the risk factors may well prevent you from experiencing an embolism. The most common causes are a sedentary life style, sitting for extended periods such as a long plane or car trip, major surgery, particularly to the knee, hip or pelvis, a broken bone, use of birth control methods containing estrogen, diagnosis of cancer, obesity and, of course, smoking. For a few, like me, there are no known risk factors and we fall into the “unprovoked” category, which means who knows why this happened.
Most pulmonary embolisms begin as a blood clot in a leg vein. So, it helps to know the signs of a deep vein thrombosis. Look for an area of redness and swelling on the leg or arm with skin that is tender and warm to the touch. If you have any of these signs, best to call your doctor asap.
When a clot travels up through the heart and lodges in an artery in the lung – it becomes a pulmonary embolism. Signs of a possible a pulmonary embolism include shortness of breath with sharp pain on taking a deep breath, cough and a rapid heart rate. A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency — if you have any of these signs, head straight to the ER.
Take some advice from a survivor — you really don’t want this to happen to you. It’s a rough go and a long road back, if you’re lucky. Please do whatever possible to reduce your risk.
First and foremost, get moving! It doesn’t mean join a gym. Just take a walk, put music on and dance around the kitchen. Lose a few pounds, stop smoking, and on long car or plane or train trips, get up and move around. And have a discussion with your doctor or health care provider about your potential risk factors.
Most importantly, if you or someone you love has any sign of a thrombosis or embolism, don’t delay getting help for a minute. A life depends on it.
More information can be found on line at the National Blood Clot Alliance at stoptheclot.org and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.
The author is the founding president and former CEO of East End Hospice, a position she held for over 28 years. She holds a master’s degree as a nurse practitioner in psychiatry. She is a pulmonary embolism survivor.