September of 2010 in Austin, was busy in the King household. The kids had just started a new school year, I was neck deep in volunteer work at school, and I was teaching cooking classes on fall cooking techniques. We were so busy that I never stopped to think about the weird pains that started affecting my body. The first occurred when I awoke with a sharp stabbing pain in my left chest. I did not feel any shortness of breath, but I felt pain when I took a deep breath. When my chest pain persisted for a few hours, I called my doctor, who said it was just a pinched nerve, and to take a muscle relaxant, which didn’t help. I was miserable for 2 more days, and then felt the same stabbing pain on the other side of my chest. I immediately called my doctor again. His assessment was that I was straining my right side to compensate for the pinched nerve on the left. The doctor again said to keep taking muscle relaxants, even though I told him that they were not having any effect.
I knew something wasn’t right. I even asked my doctor during our phone conversation whether I could be having a pulmonary embolism (PE). I knew my symptoms were classic for a PE, because I have an undergraduate degree in biomedical science. His answer was “You don’t have a PE, take the muscle relaxants, and you’ll feel better in a few days.” I listened to my doctor’s advice, and did not seek a second opinion. I should have trusted my own instincts and gone to the emergency room.
Like we all do, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about things, just got busy with my daily life as best I could and tried to ignore the pain. I decided to go for a walk to try to “work out” the pinched nerve after my second call to my doctor. During my walk, I felt winded and noticed that my left leg felt very tired, heavy, and it took a lot of effort to move it. It was a 95 degree day so I told myself I was dehydrated. Later that night, my leg felt like I pulled a muscle, and it woke me during the night. I took more muscle relaxants without relief.
The following morning began like any routine day. I put my 2 little boys on the bus for school. My 4 year old daughter was eating breakfast as she watched cartoons, and I was drinking a cup of coffee and paying bills.
I had gotten up to get ready to run some errands, and all of a sudden, my leg stopped moving. I literally couldn’t lift it or bend it. I looked down and was shocked at what I saw: my left leg was purple and twice the size of my right! I screamed so loud that my husband, who works from home, came running.
It was at that moment that all my symptoms “clicked.” I knew I had a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and that I was right about having a PE. My husband, Ben, rushed me to the nearest emergency room (ER), with our daughter in tow. In retrospect, I realize that an ambulance would have been a wiser choice in case my symptoms worsened enroute, but we thought we’d get there faster by car, and we were in a panic. I was put through a series of tests, including an ultrasound and chest CT in the ER.
When the official diagnosis came in, both my husband and I were terrified. I had a blood clot that completely blocked the length of my left leg, and had PEs in both of my lungs. I was taken to ICU, because I was at extremely high risk for the clot to break off and travel within the next 24 hours. Because I already had 2 clots in my lungs we know the DVT was breaking apart, and the fear was that another break could occur. The doctors saw the first 24 hours as critical, and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I could die at any moment. The fear gripped me and it was difficult to remain calm, especially because my sweet little girl was so frightened. Thoughts were racing through my mind. I was feeling upset that I had told my sons “see you this afternoon” instead of “goodbye” in the morning rush, and now I was in a situation that might prevent me from watching them grow up. I wondered if my wonderful husband would cope if I didn’t make it home. I was terrified knowing that my next breath might be my last.
I spent 5 days in the hospital, 3 in the ICU. My recovery has been long, slow, and painful. I decided I wanted to find another doctor, so I did research and found a hematologist, someone who knew how to treat DVTs. I waited 3 weeks for an appointment, but it was worth the wait. I was in intense pain to the point that I couldn’t walk, and I was taking pain pills around the clock. She put me on low molecular weight heparin injections instead of oral blood thinners, and the improvement in my symptoms was dramatic. The swelling in my leg decreased, and I stopped pain medicine within 10 days. Nevertheless, I still had a long recovery ahead, because I also developed a pleural effusion and lung infarction on my right side, both very painful. My hematologist referred me to a vascular surgeon, because I was still feeling pain and heaviness in my leg after 4 months.
The vascular surgeon diagnosed May-Thurner Syndrome, which is a compression of my iliac vein. The compression caused my blood to pool behind my iliac vein, and caused blood to clot in my abdomen and left leg. I had surgery in February 2011 to place a stent to open the collapsed vein. The vascular surgeon discovered an extensive clot in my abdomen, and he inserted three times as much stent as he anticipated.
Since then, the blood flow in my leg is much better. The heaviness is gone and I’ve resumed cooking for my catering business, without having to rest every 20 minutes. I almost feel normal again. I feel like it’s important to note that my chest pain came before I felt any discomfort in my leg. Had the 2 clots that went to my lungs been any bigger, I would have died without every having symptoms of a blood clot.
It’s been a long road, and I will never fully heal. My femoral vein is damaged permanently, and my emotional scars will be tough to overcome. I was depressed, scared, and convinced that at any moment I would stop breathing right after my diagnosis. I held my kids constantly and cried because I couldn’t cook their dinner, attend their sports games, or even take them upstairs to bed. As time went on, I was able to climb the stairs again, and trek out to the soccer field, but my fear of leaving my children persists. Even though I don’t have a clotting disorder, I will be on some form of blood thinner for the rest of my life because of my May-Thurner Syndrome. I have learned to make everyday count, to make sure my children and husband know I love them, and to fight this clot with everything I have.
My husband and I, along with our best friends David and Jill Mapes, are organizing Austin’s First Annual Stop The Clot® Race. I am determined to raise awareness about signs and symptoms of DVT and PE, so that no one else will wait a week with chest pain and leg pain because a doctor dismissed their symptoms.
Blood clots kill more people every year than car accidents, yet there are driving rules and seatbelts for safety. Very few people know the signs and symptoms of a DVT or PE, and I am bound and determined to change that. I want to help raise money for people to increase this awareness, for better research in this field, and for those who may be financially strapped by a blood clot. Even though fear lurks constantly in the back of my mind, I want to show my clot that it awakened my spirit to fight and to Stop The Clot.
For more information on the Austin TX, Stop the Clot race, go to www.pathfinderracing.com