The pain that kills

I remember it like it was yesterday. The brain, in fact, has a hard time forgetting pain and research shows that any pain lasting more than a few minutes leaves a trace in the nervous system that is not easily extinguished. Ever since the beginning of time, pain has played an important role in the lives of animals and humans alike, and is an indication that we should stop what we’re doing or take alternative action – or, that something is gravely wrong with the body. Pain has to be intense and hard to ignore in order to initiate the ‘flight or fight syndrome’ in which our bodies prepare to either stand and fight or turn and run; and, it is clear that adherence to pain signals have kept humans thriving for centuries. Little did I know, it is often the pain that kills if left ignored for too long.

I ignored the pain – and almost didn’t survive, just as my ancestral counterparts may not have and just as the 1 in 3 people that die today after having symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, but ignore them or wait too long to seek medical help.

How many die a year graphic

I never thought it could happen to me – why would it? I was a runner and had just completed a two mile training run, a little slow, but done nonetheless, and complained to my friend and fellow coach about what I believed to be the start of plantar fasciitis, an inflammatory running injury that causes pain throughout your heel, foot and sometimes lower leg. I stretched, I went home and iced, showered, ate leftover vegetable stir-fry I had made the night before and took a nap. It was exactly like every other Saturday for the past two years, why would it be any different?

I woke up from a two hour nap and the sun was shining brilliantly through the window. It wasn’t until I was fully awake that I realized my side was aching, and I sat abruptly, which caused me to take in a deep breath. I winced a little and stretched my arms. I knew I had fallen into a deep sleep and slept on my side wrong. It was the start of a new running season and clearly I was more out of shape than I thought as I hobbled into the bathroom – on my throbbing leg – and took another shower. The warmth of the water temporarily eased the pain in my side and my thoughts turned to what I was going to do for the day.

Any plans I thought I made didn’t happen and by that night, when my husband came home from work at 9:45 p.m., I was propped up on the couch with a pillow on either side of me. He asked what was wrong and I said I pulled a muscle running and couldn’t move my side very much. He asked if I needed to go to the hospital and I declined. I would be fine after a good night’s rest. Only, I didn’t get a good night’s rest that night – I slept propped up in the recliner with my two dogs and my husband pacing in and out of the room wondering what was wrong.

By Sunday morning, I woke up after a fitful sleep and I felt a lot better. I got up from the chair, heading for the shower again, and as soon as I put weight on my left leg, it felt like someone tightened the flesh behind me knee in a vice. I yelped in pain, grabbing my leg – which caused me to bend over – and I was astonished to feel that I could not catch my breath due to what felt like a knife in my left side. I hobbled backwards and collapsed into the recliner, trying to catch my breath. My husband came running and said, “I think you might need to go to the hospital,” but again, I said I was fine and out of shape. I called my father and cancelled dinner for the evening, barely able to speak an entire sentence without gasping for a breath. I also managed to croak out that I did not need to go to the hospital. My husband and I looked it up online and determined it was not appendicitis, a heart attack or my gall bladder, but that it must be constipation (after all, I couldn’t remember when I last went) and we made a herbal tea to ease the pain. I even believed it worked, until my dad called again and I sounded worse.

It wouldn’t be until almost 8:30 that evening that I got a call on my cell phone from my family physician (who my father called out of concern) and I explained my symptoms, convinced it was a muscle strain. The doctor, who I now credit with saving my life, instructed me to go to the emergency room immediately (or call 9-1-1 if I was alone) because he believed I was suffering from a blood clot in my lung, that travelled there from my calf. I was in disbelief, but the urgency in his voice – coupled by the fact that he called me on his cell phone on Sunday evening – convinced me that I should go. I all but fell down the stairs and told my husband we had to go. He all but muttered “I told you!” and we were out the door. I remember he helped me walk to the car because I couldn’t and I remember asking him if I was going to die because I felt like it. I remember he said he didn’t think so, but the hesitation in his voice caught me off guard. I cried all the way to the hospital and actually thought about discussing funeral arrangements in the car before it was too late. I had never even been to the hospital for as much as a bump or bruise before and I was certain this would be the end of me, as it nearly was.

And I remember feeling the worst pain I ever felt in my life. Radiating pain in my lower leg that felt like a vice and a stabbing pain in my side that felt like a knife. I couldn’t draw a deep breath, couldn’t lie down, could barely speak and could not put any weight on my left leg without increased pain. And, I remember that although I was seen without question (and bypassed a very long line of sick and injured people) it would be almost three hours before an ER doctor determined what was wrong and an ER nurse gave me morphine that suddenly made it all okay – or so I thought. Little did I know, I had a very, very long road ahead of me and one that I would be very lucky to make it out of alive on the other side of.

Stay tuned for more of my story coming up….

In healing there is hope and you are not alone,


  1. I just dealt with near the same thing last weekend. I was sitting alone at home said to myself This feels like something that could kill me. Took a nap because I was hurting so bad. Woke up an hour later and oh my so much worse than before. By the time my wife made it home I was down, couldn’t walk breath or talk much. Felt limit had a spear thru my chest. Went to hospital it could be a strain of this or this. Then the guy nurse asked if any blood work was done. Nope. He did it then. 30 minutes later sir you have elevated this and that. We need to ct scan you. Ok. Clots in both lungs. And they said another hour I may not be here. 39 yrs old. I’m not that out of shape. Still hurts some today. But it’s way better than it was. Thanks for saving my life nurse.


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