Nearly five years ago, my life changed forever when I suffered from a blood clot in my leg and in my lung. I went from being an active runner, to needing an oxygen tank to breathe. I spent several days in the hospital – my life in the balance – while doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with me. Up until that time, I thought blood clots only happened to old people who were sick, or who weren’t able to move around very much. I was 29 years old, not 89.
March – Blood Clot Awareness Month – serves as a prime opportunity to talk about blood clots. Each year, about 900,000 people a year are affected by blood clots in the U.S. alone. If a blood clot starts in your leg, like mine did – also known as deep vein thrombosis or DVT – and then travels to your lung – also known as a pulmonary embolism, or PE – it can kill you. About 100,000 people die every year due to a blood clot. t can also cause damage to your vital organs, like your heart and lungs. Blood clots – both in my leg and in my lung – were the most physically painful things I have ever experienced in my life. Quite frankly, it felt like I was dying – maybe because I was. The scary thing is, I didn’t even know that I was at risk for a blood clot, or that one could happen to me.
Know Your Risk for Blood Clots
Many things can place you at risk for a blood clot. Some of the major risk factors are hospitalization or surgery, hormonal birth control, pregnancy, treatment of menopause symptoms with estrogen, traumatic injury to the bone or muscle, a family history of blood clots, and sitting for long periods or best rest, just to name a few. Mine were caused by estrogen-based birth control and also the clotting condition antiphospholipid syndrome, which I will have to treat for the rest of my life. If you don’t know if you are at risk for a blood clot, find out right now. Speak with your doctor about your risk, and learn more about how you can prevent blood clots. Blood clots are preventable, and even treatable if detected early.
Know the Signs and Symptoms of Blood Clots
Just as important as knowing your risk for blood clots, is knowing the signs and symptoms of blood clots. I had no idea that the pain I felt in my leg – it felt like someone had the fleshy part behind my left knee in a vice that kept getting tighter – was a symptom of a blood clot. It hurt when I walked, the pain radiated down my leg to my foot. The pain did not go away with rest, elevation, ice, or even Tylenol. I did not know – and this is the scary part – that my inability to lay down flat, take deep breaths, or speak in full sentences was a sign of a life-threatening blood clot in my lung. Thank goodness, my primary care physician did, and he instructed me to the nearest Emergency Room without delay. I tried to live my life normally for two days before I went to the hospital, barely able to walk or breathe by that time. The admitting physician told me I would not have survived for a third day. If you don’t know the signs and symptoms of blood clots, learn about them right now.
I was in intensive care for several days as doctors worked to figure out why I was so sick. They worked to stabilize my heart, my lungs, my breathing and various levels and counts in my blood. I was discharged with a wheelchair and an oxygen tank, and I thought it was all over. What I did not know was that my journey had really only just begun. I spent a total of two years recovering from the physical damage that was done to my body, and nearly another year recovering from the emotional damage that was done to my mind.
Recovery: Not Just a Physical Journey
The emotional side of recovery is what I want to talk to you about this March. It’s the part that gets left out most often, if not entirely ignored in some cases. Sometimes, people don’t understand. Even people that we know and trust, like our family, our friends, maybe even our doctors.
People ask me all the time, “How did you survive?” To be honest with you, I have spent years thinking about my answer to this question. First, I had to ponder, did I really survive? People survive physical things that push them to their limits every day – floods, fires, animal attacks, being lost in the wilderness, and car accidents, for example. I believe some people even survive illnesses and diseases. After thinking about these types of situations versus my own, though, I don’t think I actually survived my blood clot – not in the same way. Surviving my blood clot was completely out of my hands. It was in the hands of my doctors, and perhaps even more importantly, a higher power – for me, it’s God – who wanted me to still be on this Earth. You see, I didn’t actually understand I might be dying, so in some respects, I couldn’t make the conscious decision to survive my ordeal.
What I did was overcome. After my pulmonary embolism, life became brutally unfair, and I dealt with a lot more than some people will ever have to deal with in their entire life. I lost a lot, nearly everything, and I experienced grief unlike any I had ever felt before. I lost my friends, my job, my medical insurance, my self-esteem, and my confidence – to name just a few things. I was in more debt than I could have ever imagined, more sick than I knew was even possible, and the blows just kept coming one after the other. I dealt with them one by one, battle by battle, fight by fight. Everything was a fight, it seemed. I tried my hardest to do what I could to improve my situation. Sometimes it did improve, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it got worse. Sometimes, I found, I had to accept the help of others to be able to help myself.
What I did not do was give up, not completely. Now, this is not to say I didn’t throw in the towel on certain days, weeks, or even months, and swear I was done with it all. I did that. I did that a lot during my recovery. Yet, somehow, someway, I never gave up completely. I always found something to believe in. Even if that something was the thought that it couldn’t possibly get any worse. Then, when it did get worse, I thought, “It can’t get any worse than it is right now. Eventually it has to get better.” My dad told me the same thing, and I clung to that belief. He told me, “Someday, Sara, it all has to get better.” A few important things kept me going when I gave up on myself – my family, my dogs, music, and my writing. Without them, I would not be where I am today.
Hope: A Special Message for You
Through all the loss and heartache and heartbreak, I always told myself there was something better on the horizon. The way I looked at it, if there wasn’t, then why was I still here? Back then – during those first weeks, months and years of recovery – you could have never convinced me that I would see better days. Yet, deep inside my heart, I believed there were better days ahead, even if it seemed like a child’s fairly tale at the time. That tiny, tiny ember never stopped burning, and I never stopped believing. I think that’s called hope. Hope for a better tomorrow, for less pain, for health, for wellness, for love, for peace, for forgiveness. Whatever it is that you need, there is hope that it will one day come to you.
I am a different person than I was before my blood clot. I don’t think someone like me – or you – goes through a life-threatening illness and comes out the same on the other side. I also don’t think a person can understand that unless they have been through it themselves. This is the part of Blood Clot Awareness that is important for me to share: Surviving, overcoming or managing a blood clot is life-changing.
The second this that is important for me to share with you is: There is hope. There is always hope. Even when you hurt more than you ever thought possible, cry more than you ever thought you would, have reached the end of your rope, lost everything, are alone, or have a broken heart. Even when it’s all over and you have nowhere to turn – there is hope. There is always hope. Find something – no matter how small that something is – to cling on to, and cling to it with all of the strength you have left. Whether it be God, your spouse, your parents, your children, your pet, yourself, your garden, your journal, your favorite song, your favorite book, your home, your memories, your dreams – hold on to it and don’t let go. Don’t ever let go of hope. If you can’t find something to cling to, here it is: There is hope.
There is hope for healing and you are not alone,
March is Blood Clot Awareness Month (BCAM). Get the information that everyone needs to know.
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