Photo Credit: Mark Crislip, M.D.
During a recent trip, I met a woman whose father had just passed away. When she discovered that I was a physician, she decided to tell me the sad story of the events leading up to his death. She gave me permission to share the story on my blog so long as I did not identify her or her family by name. For the purposes of the story, I’ll refer to the woman as Sue, and her father as Frank.
Frank was a healthy, robust man, descended from a long line of nonagenerians. Everyone assumed that he would live well into his 90′s – at least 30 more good years. One day Frank began having some leg pain, which he ignored as long as he could. Sue noticed him limping around a week later and decided to take him to see a physician. As it turned out, Frank had a deep venous thrombosis (or blood clot) in his leg, caused by a previously undiagnosed, mild genetic clotting disorder. The physicians treated him with heparin to prevent the clot from expanding, and prescribed coumadin to protect him from having the clot travel to his lungs – a condition (pulmonary embolism) that carries with it a high risk of death.
While researching his new medicines, Frank came upon an alternative medicine website. The site warned people against taking coumadin (stating that it was “a form of rat poison”) and offering herbal supplements instead. Frank decided to stop taking his coumadin, and purchased the alternative medicine from the website. Two weeks later he Read more »
News that tennis star Serena Williams was treated for a blood clot in her lungs is shining the spotlight on a frightfully overlooked condition that can affect anyone — even a trained athlete who stays fit for a living.
Williams had a pulmonary embolism. That’s doctor speak for a blood clot that originally formed in the legs or elsewhere in the body but that eventually broke away, traveled through the bloodstream, and got stuck in a major artery feeding the lungs. (To read more about pulmonary embolism, check out this article from the Harvard Heart Letter.) Pulmonary embolism is serious trouble because it can prevent the lungs from oxygenating blood — about one in 12 people who have one die from it.
“No one is immune from pulmonary embolism, not even super athletes,” says Dr. Samuel Z. Goldhaber, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the country’s leading experts in this clotting disorder.
Pulmonary embolism tends to happen among people who have recently had surgery, been injured, or been confined to bed rest for some time. It can also strike after long-haul flights.
Signs of a PE
How do you know if you’re experiencing a pulmonary embolism? The most common symptoms include shortness of breath when you aren’t exerting yourself, along with chest pain and coughing up blood. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. Other worrisome signs include:
- Excessive sweating
- Clammy or bluish skin
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
The tennis star’s pulmonary embolism could have been the result of the perfect storm. After having a cast removed from a foot she cut at Wimbledon, Williams flew from New York to Los Angeles. It was in LA, after an appearance at the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, that she underwent emergency treatment at Cedars Sinai Hospital for a blood clot in her lungs.
A call to action by the U.S. Surgeon General says that pulmonary embolism and a related condition — deep-vein thrombosis — affect an estimated 350,000 to 600,000 Americans each year. Together, they account for somewhere between 100,000 and 180,000 deaths each year.
To learn more about pulmonary embolism, check out this information from the North American Thrombosis Forum.
- P.J. Skerrett, Editor, Harvard Heart Letter
*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*
Thanks to the happy combination of Factor V Leiden and being pregnant, I’m rocking a higher chance than average for a blood clot while traveling. Back in October, when I was just a few months along, a lot of my travel was on the Acela, cruising back and forth between Boston and Philly, in addition to some flights. So I needed to take these clotting risks into account.
“You’re telling me I should pick up some compression stockings, then?” I asked my obstetrician, after we had discussed my upcoming travel plans. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Six Until Me.*