Blood Loss on Blood Thinners

If there was ever a time to not visit the hospital, during the COVID-19 pandemic felt like it, yet, that is exactly where I found myself in late October 2020. I woke up with a stomachache on Monday morning, and by Tuesday night, I was in the emergency room. A trauma surgeon explained the process of exploratory surgery to find the cause of internal bleeding, which led to severe blood loss and over half the volume of blood that was supposed to be circulating in my veins in my abdomen.

Title: Blood Loss on Blood Thinners

Fear of being exposed to COVID-19, at least outwardly, was not why I didn’t go to the emergency room, though. While it may have been somewhere in the back of my mind, I just didn’t think anything was wrong other than I ate too much cheese which interfered with my normal digestive process. I had, in fact, been in touch with two of my doctors over the course of those two days, and I was treating what I deemed to be constipation at home. I wasn’t aware that I was experiencing other concerning symptoms, or that I had called my doctor urgently for help on Tuesday night, until my husband came in from working outside and saw me doubled over on the couch. My lips were white, my eyes were fluttering, I was dizzy, and I couldn’t answer any of his questions. When he looked at my phone, I had multiple messages from my doctors telling me to call 9-1-1, so my husband called 9-1-1.

When emergency services arrived at my house, they said all of my vitals appeared to be normal, other than an elevated heart rate. They asked me if I suffered from anxiety. I told them I did, but that something wasn’t right. I told them my stomach hurt and I couldn’t eat or drink anything. They asked me to get up, and when I did, I fell over, unable to stand on my own. They brought their equipment inside, put me on the stretcher, loaded me in the squad, and then transported me to the closest hospital. My fears of COVID were overshadowed by the feeling that something was horribly and terribly wrong.

In the emergency room, things began happening very quickly. The hospital I ended up at was not part of the system I normally received all of my care from, so they had none of my medical history on file, and I frantically shared clotting history and that I was taking the blood thinner warfarin. I knew something major was happening, and I knew if I communicated nothing else, it had to be this. An IV was started and blood was drawn. I also received a catheter, something I never had before, and was sent for two CT scans and an ultrasound of my abdomen. I briefly wondered where my husband was, but assumed he couldn’t see me due to COVID-19 restrictions. I later found out he had trouble locating me at the hospital because they had my maiden name down.

It was soon determined I was likely suffering from a gynecological issue, and it felt like hours went by while they tried to determine the source of my pain. My husband and I both asked someone to check-in with my hematologist and were met with resistance due to the hospital I was at being in a different network than he was. I became increasingly concerned, and increasingly hysterical, as the pain escalated. I asked to be transferred to the hospital where my hematologist saw patients. What felt like hours went by with no answers, and waiting is the worst feeling.

I was never more relieved than when a trauma surgeon entered the room and told us the news, “Your pain is from blood loss. Over half of your body’s blood is in your abdomen area and we don’t know why or what’s causing the bleeding, because there is too much blood there to see anything on the imaging scans. We can’t move you because, frankly, you don’t have time to get there. We have to do surgery right now and an operating room is being prepared for that.” His eyes were kind and caring as he said, “We still have time to act, but we need to act right now.”

I stared at him in disbelief and then asked two things, “What is my INR and when is someone going to talk to my hematologist?” My INR was only slightly elevated, and the surgeon – unaware that I had a hematologist – called him right away, even though it was the middle of the night. I heard them work out a plan to control bleeding during surgery, and possible clotting afterwards. I heard my hematologist tell me I was in a good place and needed to stay where I was.

Nothing happened as fast as what happened next, not even when I was faced with a life-threatening blood clot in my lung. My very tiny make-shift-pandemic-proofed emergency room filled with nurses while they tried to find acceptable veins to administer fresh frozen plasma to reverse warfarin, the blood thinner in my system, and then a blood transfusion to reverse the blood loss. A regular transfusion wasn’t enough, so they gave me several rapid ones in a row. The transfusions of blood hurt incredibly due to the speed, although I am told that is an unusual reaction.

The surgeon explained that he would make small incisions in my stomach for a camera to explore for the source of the bleeding, but if he couldn’t find anything, he would have to make a large incision to see for himself. He explained time was not on my side, but the surgery should only be a couple of hours, and I was whisked away down the hall. I never had surgery before, and if I ever needed it, under dire circumstances was not how I envisioned it. As I wheeled down the hall, lights flashing by above my head, the only thing I could do was let go and let someone else be in control – it couldn’t be me anyway. I trusted my hematologist and decidedly my newfound surgeon. I focused on that trust as I fell asleep within seconds in the operating room.

I woke up some time later – although I had no idea nearly a day had gone by – in a room by myself with a tube down my throat, restrained to the bed and unable to speak or move. I panicked and thrashed about as much as possible, hoping someone would hear me. Nurses ran in and one said, “You’re okay, but you had a complication and you need to rest until you can breathe on your own so we’re going to help you do that.” Breathe on my own? No one told me about this. If this is how surgeries went, I never wanted to be a part of another one. I would wake up two more times in a state of distress before I had the ventilation tube taken out of my throat and was able to breathe for myself. Once that happened, all of the details were shared with me about my ordeal.

It was not entirely normal. The surgery went fine, and the surgeon was able to find the cause of my bleeding with laparoscopic surgery alone and no large incisions: A ruptured cyst on one of my ovaries caused a bleed that didn’t stop. When I was coming out of anesthesia, however, I had a complication. I stopped breathing and required CPR and a ventilator to stay alive. That part was unexpected, but an experienced anesthesiologist recognized the problem within seconds and acted accordingly to save me. Between my surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and the hematologist who has cared for me for a number of years, I feel grateful to have received extraordinary care.

I spent several days in the hospital, and was advised that once home, it could take months to recover fully from the surgery and blood loss. When I was in the hospital, I felt like I would never get better, and once I was home, it felt like it would take forever. What I have found, though, is that this recovery has gone much smoother than my recovery from blood clots. My incisions are nearly healed, and I feel better each day.

I have had numerous follow-up appointments, and it was determined that a rupturing ovarian cyst is something that happens in a small percentage of women, and when it does, most women feel pain, but not many would bleed to the point that I did. It is believed that the bleeding caused my coagulation factors to become depleted, which in turn caused my INR to steadily rise, which caused the bleeding into my abdomen to continue. My blood couldn’t clot the wound. I, as a result, began experiencing signs of blood loss and shock, but I wasn’t aware of them.

My message after facing life-threatening blood loss and emergency surgery isn’t different from my message after facing a life-threatening blood clot in my lung: Listen to your body and don’t delay seeking help. I do, however, have a greater understanding of what I need to listen to my body for. Pain has been an indicator that something is wrong. Pain that is new or different, pain that doesn’t go away, or pain that gets worse means that I need to seek help – and quickly. Waiting to see how I feel, or if I feel better, is not an option. And all anxiety and doubts in myself aside, If I have a suspicion that something is seriously wrong, it probably is.

There is hope for healing from blood clots, and you are not alone.

Reader Writes In: Have you experienced bleeding while taking a blood thinner? What was your experience like?

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