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I was logging more than 100 miles on my bicycle in any given week. So, at 46 years of age, it was not surprising that from time to time my legs ached. Why wouldn’t they? And that was exactly what I told my family physician when she warned me that my leg pain could be a symptom of a blood clot as a result of taking a third generation birth control pill.
Interestingly, her warning was one I had never received from my gynecologist – the same doctor who insisted that I stay on the pill for many, many years. Even so, my family physician’s warning was but a faded memory when one year later (September of 2004), I experienced severe pain in my left calf. My response was to use a heating pad, do some stretches, and take plenty ibuprofen because I was in training, preparing for an October bike trip.
It was while riding up a steep hill during that trip that my biking friend asked how my leg felt and I said, “it’s the funniest thing, the leg feels fine, but now I am having trouble breathing. My luck it was a clot that went to my lungs,” and I laughed! After returning home, I went to the doctor because I was still having shortness of breath. However, it would be another six weeks before I was actually diagnosed with having a DVT and also suffering from multiple pulmonary emboli.
Why so long? Well, I had failed to mention to any of my physicians that I was experiencing leg pain. Because of that omission, doctors tested me for everything – from exercise induced asthma to a bad gall bladder. Eventually, one of the clots infracted in my pleura, causing pleurisy. Shortly after the pleurisy diagnosis, I was given a Doppler scan of my legs.
Doctors discovered a very large deep vein thrombosis in my left popliteal vein. The fact that I had an auxiliary popliteal vein kept me from having more typical symptoms, other than the leg pain.
I was immediately admitted to the hospital and stayed for 10 days. My CT angiogram showed that my lungs were filled with small and large clots, even though my shortness of breath had actually gone away. A six month regimen on Coumadin® followed. Thankfully, genetic clotting disorder tests proved negative. The villain causing all this? My family physician believes the main culprit was the third generation birth control.
In looking back, I suspect that I had had a blood clot in my leg for a very long time. Six months earlier, my biking trip through Tuscany had provided symptoms when the slightest uphill climb left me inordinately out of breath. While I was somewhat concerned with the problem because I had trained for months prior to the trip, I continued on with my biking sojourn.
Today, my doctors believe that my rigorous exercise regimen saved my life because my excellent cardiovascular conditioning had enabled my lungs to compensate for the large number of clots that were probably being constantly showered into my lungs over many, many months or even years.
Weeks after going off Coumadin®, I have said goodbye to my indoor bike trainer and headed back out onto the road. I have to tell you the first couple of rides were amazing because I could actually breathe. I now realize how compromised my breathing was – a condition that I had truly failed to realize. Now, with the wind at my back, I am thankful to be so alive.