There's a man we know very well who eats almost exclusively organic and minimally-processed food, only drinks water, doesn't use any tobacco products, doesn't drink alcohol, exercises regularly, brushes his teeth at least twice a day and flosses regularly. He has a very low amount of body fat and is in great shape. In college, he was part of a strength competition at the Army-Navy game in 2000 and completed 50 one-armed push-ups. This same man, at the age of 36, narrowly escaped death just a month ago.
How could such a healthy man almost die at such a relatively young age? As far as his doctors know, there were several factors that came into play.
Spoiler alert: the man I'm talking about is me.
Our emotions have far-reaching effects on our bodies both positive and negative. Stress is very common in the American society, but not all stress is bad. In fact, we can have good stress and bad stress. The bad stress is distress and anxiety.
Leading up to my DVT and PE, I was under a lot of pressure at work and had a good bit of anxiety as a result of things going on at work. Some of my anxiety was left-over from some rather disturbing experiences from last summer. Because of my response to a very dangerous situation, I was and still am under a lot of scrutiny from very high in my organization. I thought that I was handling this stress well, but, looking back, I can see now that I was anxious about my family's future and the security of my job.
Also, immediately before I had my DVT, I was in charge of a very significant, high-visibility event. Immediately following that event, I started to get sick.
The common remedy for all sickness (as far as I know anyway) is lots of fluids and rest. Whatever I had after my high-pressure event left me with a fever and a generally crummy, tired feeling. I still had a lot of things to do at work, though, and didn't feel like I could take off work. I went to work. My body needed more fluids to heal, but I didn’t feel like drinking. I brought water with me in my big Nalgene water bottle, but, at the end of my day, my water bottle had been untouched. Boy, that sounds childish doesn’t it?
Not only did my body need extra fluids since I was sick, but my body was also using extra amounts of fluids due to sinus drainage. Even with my body’s need for extra fluids, I was still going through the day without drinking much (if any) water -- not good! So not only was I stressed, I was sick. Also, not only was I sick and stressed, I was sick, stressed, AND dehydrated. Franicia found out after I was diagnosed with my DVT and PE that dehydration and anxiety are closely related.
So all of the things that I was experiencing -- anxiety, sickness, and dehydration -- were all compounding on each other and were even related.
Lack of Activity
If it wasn’t bad enough that I was stressed, sick, and dehydrated, imagine what all of those things were doing to my blood and heart -- whatever they were doing couldn’t have been good. I’m usually a very active person. I usually exercise in the morning before work, get up from my desk about once an hour to walk a bit and do push-ups and pull-ups, and exercise at the end of my workday. After the Purple Heart Ceremony, I was not exercising nor was I getting up from my desk like I normally would’ve. I didn’t feel like exercising and didn’t feel like getting up from my desk. Plus, I had so much to do.
It turns out that an active person that goes from being very active to a period of inactivity puts that normally active person at risk for DVT and PE. I’ve always been very active. In high school, I exercised all the time, played musical instruments, played sports, and loved to walk whenever I had the chance. When I wasn’t in school, I worked on construction sites cleaning houses, digging ditches, and working on erosion control -- I was extremely active. In college, I was a varsity athlete, walked everywhere, ran regularly, and exercised...all the time. After college, I joined the Navy. In the Navy, I’ve been involved in aviation -- rotary aviation initially then flight training in NW Florida -- both of which kept me very busy and active. For one tour, I was the officer in charge of a security boat detachment. During this job, I was extremely busy and active. In fact, we exercised as a command 3 days a week and individually twice a week. Usually, the command PT involved 4 mile runs.
When I started my current job, I knew that I would be doing a lot of administrative, desk work (flying a...desk). This concerned me because I’ve been so active previous to this job. I was afraid that I’d gain weight (I have, but not an unhealthy type). I have been very careful about exercising regularly.
When I was sick...and dehydrated...and stressed, I wasn’t being careful to stay active -- probably when it was most important for me to be active.
The week after the ceremony, I was sick. That culminated with feeling extremely poorly the following Saturday. That night, I had a very painful cramp in my right calf (probably due to my dehydration). Normally, I would’ve stayed up after being awoken by the cramp and massaged it and stretched my calf. I was feeling so poorly, though, that I went right back to sleep.
The next week, my right calf was very tight -- so tight that I had difficulty walking. I was limping pretty badly all week and my right ankle was a bit swollen. I wasn’t sure why my ankle was swollen, but I have sprained my ankle many times before and remember getting down from our van in an odd way leading up to my ankle pain. I figured that I had simply sprained my ankle slightly. I also figured that my calf pain was related to getting down from our van the wrong way. I’ve strained my Achilles' tendon before, and the pain I felt was much like the pain from a strained Achilles’ tendon.
My calf pain went away
About a week after my calf cramp, my calf started to feel a bit better. I was so excited that I decided that I should celebrate by doing a quick workout before going home from work including an ab workout. The next day, my calf almost felt completely better, but I started to have some discomfort in my abdomen and my upper thigh. I figured that the discomfort in my abdomen was related to my ab workout. As that day went on, the discomfort moved from my abdomen to my ribs. I still figured that that pain was related to my intense ab workout.
The next day the pain was still in my ribs, but it was getting more intense -- so much so that it was difficult for me to take a deep breath. I’ve experienced discomfort in my abs before due to intense workouts, so this feeling wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me. My pains also felt like the discomfort associated with gas. Throughout the day, the pain continued then culminated in pretty intense and sharp pain in my left shoulder and trap muscle.
I knew that I shouldn't ignore pains in my shoulder -- especially my left shoulder. Almost as soon as I felt those sharp pains in my left shoulder and trap, I thought that I had a pulmonary embolism even though I really didn’t know what a pulmonary embolism was. I searched for symptoms of a pulmonary embolism on the Internet, and my symptoms matched almost to a tee! I knew that I needed to get to the hospital ASAP.
At the hospital
When I arrived at the emergency room, there were quite a few people in the waiting area, but the nurses saw me almost right away. After blood work, a few x-rays, and a CT scan, the verdict was in -- I had clots in my right calf as well as a peppering of clots that broke off the clot in my leg in both of my lungs. The doctor put me on a very strong anticoagulant via IV and told me that I'd probably have to spend the next week in the hospital! I’ve never been hospitalized in my life, so this was a new experience for me.
During my stay at the hospital, I experienced some very intense pain as a result of the clots in my left lung. Many times, it was very difficult for me to breath, and I couldn’t take a full breath or even exhale completely. A couple of times, I coughed up blood, but, praise the Lord, I made very rapid progress in my healing and was able to leave just 3 days after being admitted.
Recovering at home
I’m so very thankful for the care that I received at Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga. My doctors and nurses were all very nice and helpful. As thankful as I am, I sure hope that I don’t have to go to the hospital again any time soon! I missed being home and being with my family. I’m currently on an oral anticoagulant and will probably be on it for another couple of months. I feel great, though. I’ve been exercising, running, cycling, and feel wonderful.
I still don’t know exactly why I experienced a DVT and PE. I may be genetically disposed to clotting, but I won’t know until I’ve been off of my medication long enough to have my blood tested for clotting conditions. I’m being very intentional about a few things, though.
I write about how I'm trying to prevent further DVTs and PEs in this post.
After experiencing my DVT and PE, I was surprised to find that it’s not all that uncommon. Sadly, approximately 70% of pulmonary embolisms are diagnosed on the autopsy table and is the third leading cause of death in the US.
Have you ever had or know someone who has experienced something like this? What led to your (or their) condition?