In October 2012, I started to feel a pain in my left calf. I immediately thought I pulled a muscle, so I tried stretching and even got new tennis shoes. The pain would not go away and after about three weeks, and shortness of breath joined in. I had to take breaks walking to class because I would be so out of breath and my heart would be racing. I felt sharp pains in my back with almost every inhaled breath I took which caused me to cry, and only made the pain worse.
I decided to visit Health Services on my college campus, only reporting my shortness of breath; they thought I was just developing some kind of lung infection. I was given antibiotics and was told to come back in two days if I wasn’t feeling better. Sure enough, I came back two days later. The doctor gave me Albuterol (an asthma medication or inhaler), thinking maybe I was developing Asthma. I stayed with my parents that weekend and things were getting worse. I could hardly complete a sentence without gasping for air.
On Tuesday, November 6, I decided to visit a different clinic. My leg pain had returned, so I reported that along with my shortness of breath. Within five minutes, I was being sent to the hospital for CT scans (x-ray that takes detailed pictures of the lungs) and ultrasounds. They told me it might not be blood clots, but they wanted to check for that first. I had never been so scared of my life. After testing, I found out I had a DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis or leg clot) in my entire left leg and multiple PEs (pulmonary embolism or lung clot) in both of my lungs. I stayed in the hospital for three days for testing and observation. I was immediately prescribed Coumadin® (Blood thinner or anti-clotting medication) and compression stockings.
I found out that I have the Factor V Leiden mutation (a genetic or inherited clotting disorder), and being on estrogen birth control provoked the clots to form. My mother had blood clots when she was pregnant with me, but it had never come up in conversation in my 20 years of life.
After multiple scans and ultrasounds, I found out the clots cleared from my lungs. My doctor said it was up to me if I wanted to stay on blood thinners or not, but to be cautious and be able to recognize body signals. Both my lungs and my leg were clot free, and my left leg now had a clear passage for blood flow. So, I decided to stop taking Coumadin® in June 2013. I wanted my body to return to normal, and I thought getting off the blood thinners would be a safe option. I didn’t want to take Coumadin® anymore because it conflicted with other medications and had some negative side effects, including weight gain and excessive bleeding. When I made this decision, I lowered my risk by staying off the birth control. Now that I know the symptoms, I know what steps I need to take. My doctor recommended that I still wear a compression stocking on my left leg, and walk around during long travel. When I get pregnant, my doctor said I will have to take extra precautions and get Lovenox (blood thinner or anti-clotting medication) injections.
The illness has changed me in the sense that I feel so much more aware of who I am and what’s going on in my body. I was 20 years old and never thought I would develop PE or DVT. I had seen commercials about birth control causing blood clots, but I never thought it could happen to me. Why would it? I was unaware of my mother’s health history and naïve about the side effects of birth control. Now I am more cautious about what enters my body and I’ve learned to be more responsible in knowing family members’ health history and spreading the information to others who could be affected.
It’s unfortunate that I had this experience, but I’m glad that I know and that I’m able to prevent the same thing from happening to other family members. I look at my life differently because I had doctors telling me, “This can be life threatening.” When I’m having a stressful day, I just remind myself that at least I’m here; I’m alive. Things could be worse than they are now. It has made me appreciate the people in my life more. I feel so lucky to have survived the silent killer. November 6, 2013 was my one-year anniversary of diagnosis.
Take Home Messages:
- DVTs often start out feeling like you have a painful pulled muscle in your calf
- PEs are sometimes diagnosed as something else, such as asthma
- It is important to tell the doctor all of your recent symptoms, even if you think they are not related
- Leg pain and difficulty breathing can be a life-threatening medical emergency
- Hormonal birth control puts you at risk for developing blood clots, and if you also have a genetic clotting disorders, such as Factor V Leiden, that increases your risk of blood clots even more
- Once you have had a blood clot it is important to know the symptoms so you can take steps to get medical help as soon as possible if you suspect another one
- It is important to take steps to prevent another clot, such as not taking hormonal birth control, and getting up and moving when you travel
- If you have a clotting disorder and you become pregnant, you need to take extra precautions as pregnancy further increases your risk of blood clots, and the clotting disorder can cause other complications during pregnancy
- Find out if any of your family members have had blood clots and other medical history
- It is important to increase awareness about blood clots to others who may be affected and not know about blood clots
- Surviving a PE/DVT is a life-changing experience