Four years ago, I didn’t know the pain in my leg and in my chest, along with shortness of breath, were symptoms of life-threatening blood clots. I was incredibly lucky to get help for what I was feeling in time, and perhaps just hours before it was too late. This is especially true when you consider the fact that some people never experience symptoms of blood clots. They just don’t survive a blood clot in their lung, or pulmonary embolism. To say I survived what is an often silent, or invisible, killer is something that I think about quite often. Since my blood clot diagnosis and recovery, I have heard from countless people who have lost a friend of family member to a blood clot because they didn’t know they had one, they had no symptoms or they didn’t get medical care in time. It can feel impossible to be prepared for this type of unexpected health crisis.
To say I survived a silent killer is a large part of why I do the work that I do today. I hope that by sharing my story, I can help educate other people about not only the signs and symptoms of deadly blood clots, but also about their risk for one in the first place. I believe that knowledge is one of our best defenses against blood clots and knowing can help to save lives. Now that I know I am at risk for blood clots – and I know what they feel like – I will never delay seeking treatment for as long as I did. Two days of wondering what was going on nearly cost my life.
Carbon monoxide, also known as CO, is another often-ignored silent killer. It is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include a dull headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision or loss of consciousness. CO poisoning is especially dangerous if you are sleeping or intoxicated, and is a medical emergency because symptoms can be subtle, but can also be deadly.
Those symptoms bring back some unhappy memories of what I experienced with my pulmonary embolism minus the severe pain. It was my hope to never feel anything that caused me great concern again. Yet, there I was on Saturday night, winding down and watching TV after dinner, when out of nowhere, I got a headache, felt dizzy, and felt nauseated. I shook my head around, trying to clear my eyes. The TV screen was blurry, and I suddenly felt out of place, or unsure of what was going on. Generally, my first thought would be “something is wrong with my INR,” but instead I thought, “It might be carbon monoxide poisoning.” I don’t know why I thought this. All I know is that I Googled the symptoms of CO poisoning (I know, never, ever do that) and the rest is history as we know it: I had carbon monoxide poisoning.
As it turns out, even more people experience CO poisoning that I realized. Per the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Carbon Monoxide Info Center, more than 150 people in the Unites States die every year from accidental non-fire related CO poisoning. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that an average of 430 people die in the U.S. a year due to CO poisoning and countless more are hospitalized due to symptoms. CO poisoning is often associated with consumer products, such as generators. Other products that can omit deadly CO include faulty, improperly-used or incorrectly-vented fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, stoves, water heaters and fireplaces.
So, while I’m not exactly sure just how many people do die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year, I was exactly sure that I was going to be one of them. There was nothing that anyone could have said or done to convince me that I was not experiencing the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. While I wasn’t running a generator, and I did not have a faulty or improperly installed stove, refrigerator, water heater, furnace or fireplace, I was certain I had missed something, somewhere, and one of these things was omitting odorless, tasteless, deadly gas directly into my bedroom. I was certain that when I went to sleep on Saturday night, I would not wake up on Sunday morning. The only thing the Internet could not tell me was if I had CO in my house.
When my husband came in from outside, shaking the snow off his boots, and proclaimed, “I feel funny in here, but fine outside,” that sealed my fate.
“I think we’re suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning,” I said. He promptly turned around and started lacing up his boots again.
“What are you doing?” I asked. He responded, “I know where this is going, you don’t have to tell me. We’re going to the store to buy a detector.”
Sure enough, at half past midnight on Sunday morning we were on our way to the closest store to find a carbon monoxide detector, but not just any carbon monoxide detector would do. We visited a total of three stores (thank goodness for 24-hour stores) before we found one that plugs in (and will therefore move when I am worried about another room in the house or work when the power goes out). Over an hour and over $40 later, I was back at home, eagerly reading the instructions to set it up. Much to my complete panic, it beeped wildly as soon as the back-up battery was installed, but soon settled on a “0” CO reading, and my sense of peace was restored. I must have been tired or dehydrated – or maybe I ate too much at dinner, much too late – and that’s why I didn’t feel good.
“So, we’re not dying of CO poisoning,” I said to my husband, thoroughly relieved. He replied, “I never thought we were,” equally relieved to be getting ready for bed. I proceeded to thank him profusely for trekking miles from home with me on a cold Saturday night just so I could have peace of mind. Okay, we didn’t trek – and I drove – but I am still grateful for his support in situations just like this.
I nestled into bed, a smile on my face, when one last thought crossed my mind: You’re crazy. I sat up like a lightning bolt, once again unable to relax. A thousand different thoughts entered my mind after that ranging from, “you don’t have every disease, ever” to “you might, you never know” to “you can’t tell anyone about this” to “that was probably a waste of $40” to “what if that $40 saves your life someday” to “you should probably have a CO detector in every room now” to “when was the last time you checked the smoke alarm.”
I only spoke one of them, “Do you think I’m crazy?” My husband answered from the darkness, “No, at least you know we aren’t dying of CO poisoning.” I waited for the “but,” the “and,” the “next time,” but nothing came.
Then he said, “Do you think you’re crazy?”
I didn’t answer him that night, but I laid awake for a while thinking about it before I came to one conclusion: No, I’m not crazy. But surviving something that can kill you – maybe even silently, with no warning – sure does change your perspective on things. I worry about more health-related things, I wonder if I have a health condition that isn’t easy to detect, I wonder if I am sick with something horrible I don’t know about, and yes, I sometimes think the tiniest inconsistency might mean something horrible is wrong with me. It can be maddening if I let it control me.
What I have also come to realize is that all I can do is be prepared, and if that means spending money to buy a detector so I don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning, then that is what it means. While having a CO detector might be pointless to someone else, it is invaluable to me to have peace of mind about one health condition I can’t otherwise control. Not unlike blood clots, I know my risk for CO poisoning, I know the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning, and I know how to protect myself and my family from it. This happens to be a health concern that was handled outside of a doctor’s office – my symptoms had subsided by the time we returned from the store – but even if it wasn’t: be prepared.
While the unexpected – and the unknown is scary – I think it is possible to be prepared for an unexpected health crisis. Talk to your doctor about your concerns, get your annual wellness and physical exams and tests, pay attention to what your body might be telling you, and take care of yourself to the best of your ability. If you do get sick or injured, have resources on hand to help you, know where to go to get the information you need. Know how your insurance works, how to get care if you don’t have any insurance, find a primary care physician you can rely on to help you get to the specialists you need to see, as soon as you need to see them. Whether you install a CO detector, quit smoking, start exercising, eat healthier, or wear a helmet riding a bike, be prepared to take care of the one and only you.
There is hope for healing and you are not alone,
What does recovery from a pulmonary embolism feel like? Get more info to share in this post.
Do you suffer from panic attacks? You’re not alone. Here are my tips for how to handle a panic attack after PE.