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I love to travel. I grew up in Boston, and after college I moved to Washington, DC. Moving away from home and my family was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but one of the most rewarding as well. By taking this leap of faith, I grew so much as a person and traveled to beautiful places and experienced new cultures.
Living away from home makes me prioritize a lot of my travel to see my family. I try to be present for important family events, and last May, when my two youngest brothers graduated from college, was no exception. I traveled back-to-back weekends to proudly attend their ceremonies. We capped off this special time with an amazing family vacation to San Francisco and Kauai, Hawaii.
That’s where my joyful story takes a dark turn.
I never thought that at 28 years old I would be forced to consider my own mortality, but that’s exactly what happened when I developed a blood clot in my leg (DVT or deep vein thrombosis) and was hospitalized with several blood clots in my right lung (PE or pulmonary emboli).
During our time in Kauai, I felt discomfort in my left calf – that I chalked up to walking around San Francisco. I thought I had pulled a muscle, so I took Tylenol, iced and elevated my calf, and didn’t think much of it.
After I returned to DC, though, I woke up one night in excruciating pain. With each breath I took, I was in agony. Foolishly, I told myself nothing was wrong and tried to go back to sleep, but a few hours later, the pain was worse, and I went to the emergency room. When I told the nurses my symptoms, I was immediately seen by a team of doctors.
I was absolutely stunned to learn that I had DVT and PE. I was a healthy, active 28-year-old woman with no medical issues. I knew almost nothing about blood clots, including the warning signs that I should have caught, but I missed.
Once the initial shock wore off, all I felt was fear. The thing I was most scared of, ironically, was my own body. How could my body betray me?
I was hospitalized for two days and spent my summer on leave from work. I had to take a new oral anticoagulant every day for six months. It was one of the darkest times of my life. Some days my pain and fatigue were so intense that I felt I would never be myself again. The roller coaster of my trauma was, at times, too unbearable and overwhelming.
Through therapy, the love and support of family and friends, and the dedication of my doctors, I healed and received a clean bill of health six months later.
In a way, my DVT and PE experience was a blessing in disguise. I discovered that I have Factor V Leiden. This, in turn, led members of my family to get tested, some of whom also discovered they have the same disorder. In addition to my extensive travel and genetic predisposition, my doctors determined that my estrogen-based birth control was also a contributing factor, so I switched to progestin-based birth control. I wouldn’t have known any of this information if not for my hospitalization.
Now, I take better efforts to care for my body. I walk and stretch my legs if I’ve been sitting too long, and I wear compression sleeves when I’m traveling or on my feet for long periods of time.
The greatest way I’ve been impacted, though, is my overall appreciation for life.
When I was in the hospital, I thought my body had betrayed me, but in the days and months that followed, I realized that my body is a resilient warrior that actually saved my life. Every day since June 6, 2015, I honor and thank my body for its strength.
My advice to anyone reading is first to trust your gut instinct. I knew that something was seriously wrong with me, but I felt I was overreacting, so I didn’t go to the hospital immediately. That was a mistake that almost cost me my life. I was very lucky that being a young, healthy woman prevented the worst from happening.
No one knows your body better than you do, so listen to it and respect it.
Be aware of the warning signs of DVT and PE, and consider any factors that might place you at risk for blood clots, especially if you are a woman on estrogen-based birth control or if you have a genetic predisposition. Read and research as much as you can so you are informed and proactive – you are your best medical advocate.
Perhaps most importantly, if you experience DVT or PE, be kind and gentle to yourself as you recover. There is no straight path to healing, but you are stronger than you think and you will find a way to be whole again.