DVT/PE: Why You Should Always Listen to Your Body

How do I describe the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life? How do I find the words for a pain that literally brought me to my knees? A pain that left me struggling to stand, to walk, to even catch my breath?

Years later, I still haven’t found the words.

Blood Clots in My Lungs

900,000
people in the United States experience DVT/PE or venous thromboembolism (VTE) each year. As many as 100,000 die each year.CDC

The memory of this indescribable pain has yet to leave me. After finally making it to the emergency room, I underwent a series of tests. One X-ray and a CT scan later, I was diagnosed with bilateral blood clots in my lungs. Some of these clots had moved towards the outer lining, blocking the blood flow in my pulmonary arteries, and causing the lung tissue to begin necrotizing – that is, dying.

That was the cause of my stop-you-in-your tracks, take-your-breath-away pain.

I spent three nights in the hospital in a state of grogginess fueled by painkillers. Nurses woke me up every few hours for regular blood draws and shots of heparin, a blood thinner medicine, to begin treating my clots. Occasionally, they’d update my vitals (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) on the whiteboard across the way. These etched numbers and the steady beeping of the heart monitor behind me provided a sense of comfort; I was still alive despite the potentially fatal condition I was dealing with.

Growing up, I had what I can only describe as your average childhood. Besides a broken toe and a few pulls and strains from the multiple sports I played, I suffered no traumatic injuries. I wasn’t allergic to anything, and I had never spent the night in a hospital.

So, how did I, a seemingly healthy 20-year-old college student, get to this point?

The answer: I didn’t listen to my body.

Ignoring My Body’s Signals

A few months prior to my emergency room trip, I decided to go on hormonal birth control. My mother, a registered nurse, warned me of the potential risk of blood clots, but I ignored her. Almost every female friend I had was on some form of contraception without any complications. I foolishly assumed that would be the case for me.

At this time in my life, I was also working out close to six days a week. I was running and lifting, and I distinctly remember tweaking a muscle above my inner ankle. I took a few days off from the gym with the hope that the pain would subside. Instead, it intensified, so I decided to seek medical help. An Urgent Care visit surmised that I had torn a muscle. The treatment would be the typical rest, ice to reduce swelling, and physical therapy.

When I felt that my torn muscle had finally healed, and I was back to light workouts at the gym. But then I developed a pain around my inner knee. And then my inner thigh. And then it was a pain that I assumed was a pulled groin muscle.

Notice a pattern here? The pain steadily moved up my leg, which should have been my first indication that something more serious was going on. But, as a long-time athlete, I was no stranger to injured muscles. I thought it was simply that: a workout injury.

I turned a blind eye to my shallow breathing and the back pain that followed. I was an invincible 20-year-old. Nothing could put me in the hospital.

Treating My Pulmonary Embolism

Fast forward two more weeks and that’s right where I was, sitting in a hospital bed and diagnosed with a medical condition far more severe than a pulled muscle. A couple night’s stay in the hospital was followed by six months on the blood thinner Xarelto (which I chose over other options, such as warfarin) to dissolve my clots and prevent blood clots in the future. I was also told that I could never go on hormonal birth control again.

5–8%
of people in the U.S. have one or more genetic risk factors (thrombophilias) that can lead to DVT/PE.CDC

I later discovered that I had the perfect storm of factors that contributed to my resulting deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE). For one, blood tests confirmed that I have Factor V Leiden, a genetic disorder that makes my blood more susceptible to clotting. Two, I had originally injured my lower leg muscle, which likely caused blood to pool around it. And three, I was on hormonal birth control that acted as the catalyst for my susceptibility to blood clotting. A DVT soon formed and my inability to treat it in time spurred on my bilateral PE.

Shortly after getting out of the hospital, I learned of a mutual friend who suffered a DVT that broke off and caused a heart attack. She died instantly. I consider myself lucky to have made it to the hospital before it was too late.

Don’t Ignore the Warning Signs

If there’s one thing that this life-threatening medical experience taught me, it’s that we all have a tendency to think we’re invincible until something happens to us. I learned the hard way that ignoring even the smallest of symptoms can be incredibly dangerous.

Before you decide to take any medication, I urge you to learn as much as you can about your medical history and understand the risk factors for any medical conditions you could be susceptible to. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, read the prescribing information or medication guide from the FDA, and do your own research on a drug’s possible complications before taking it. And if you have a medical or dental procedure, be sure to follow the instructions of your healthcare provider when taking any pills, even if it’s an over-the-counter drug like aspirin.

I couldn’t have fathomed that such a dangerous side effect of birth control could happen to me, but it did. And it could happen to you.

Learn from my mistakes and listen to your body. Don’t cast aside your aches and pains – and certainly don’t ignore anything that could lead to serious problems, such as internal bleeding. Take them seriously and seek medical attention if the slightest thing feels out of the ordinary. Your life could depend on it.