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Life After (Near) Death Experiences

Let’s go back to a slightly over a month ago.

I left my union’s Board of Director’s meeting on a Thursday evening, full of excitement. It was my birthday on Saturday, but it wasn’t just that. I was getting ready to board a plane early Friday morning to head to Boston for Pax East, the big video-game convention. I was going to meet some friends that I knew from Twitter, and I was eagerly anticipating spending my first birthday with my boyfriend. All seemed full of promise. Who was to know that what would happen next would completely change my life, possibly forever.

My schedule is always hectic. I’m always busy, always running to the next appointment. Problems with insomnia and stress leave me feeling exhausted more often than not. Meetings, political events, work, a long and aggravating commute, they all build up. I was already worn out by the time I hit Boston. My arthritic knee was throbbing, the sciatic nerve issue I had was angry. Gimpy and tired, I hobbled around Pax, had a lovely birthday dinner on Saturday…and that’s when the chain of events started that would eventually take me down. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t sure if I had food poisoning or a stomach virus. All I knew was I was burning up with fever, I couldn’t even keep water down, and I was locked in the bathroom most of the day. I was dehydrating fast, and despite my BF bringing me juice, water, and some salty crackers, I remained sick that entire day and night. Monday morning dawned, I knew I had to fly home. Still feeling ill, I continued to drink very little fluids and didn’t chance much in the way of food. My flight wasn’t non-stop, I had a short hop to Chicago, and then the 4hr plus flight from Chicago back to SoCal.

You read all sorts of things about Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), but you never think it’ll happen to you. A blood clot can form in your body for a number of contributing factors, travel being one. I never bothered wearing fancy compression stockings for travel. I didn’t get up and walk in the plane. I was dehydrated. I sat locked in one position for the entire 4hr flight. My doctors think this is what caused the clot to reach critical mass. But it may have started at any point. This was my third cross-country trip in less than three months. Plus, I sit too much at work without taking proper ergo breaks. And, I’m a gamer. I spend hours sitting at my desk in the evenings and on weekends, playing games, losing track of time, and not taking breaks to stretch or move around. Immobility is a tremendous risk factor for DVT.

When I returned home, I naturally was worn out from travel and having that stomach bug. My right leg really hurt me. I assumed I had overdone the walking and was feeling the anger of an arthritic joint pushed past its limit. My calf really ached and throbbed, too, but again, I chalked it up to muscle strain. As the week wore on, I became increasingly more exhausted. Surely, I thought, resting over the weekend would help.

But it didn’t help. I actually started to feel worse. By Easter Sunday, the slightest activity set my lungs gasping for air and my heart thundering out of my chest. I knew something was wrong. At the urging of my boyfriend and another friend, I opted to go to my medical clinic’s urgent care. My EKG was normal, but as soon as the doctors learned of my air travel, they suspected that I had a blood clot in my lung, a pulmonary embolism (PE), brought on by DVT in my leg that broke loose and travelled through my veins. Wasting no time, the urgent care staff summoned an ambulance and rushed me to the hospital’s emergency room.

It was at this point I became truly frightened, because I realized that this could kill me at literally any point. A PE can break loose, sending the clot to the brain or heart, which could result in permanent impairment, or an almost instant death. 2/3 of PE deaths occur within 30 minutes. Once at the hospital, a battery of tests, including a CT scan, confirmed the diagnosis, PE in both lungs. I spent two days in the ICU (intensive care unit), basically locked down to the bed because the doctors didn’t want me to move and possibly dislodge the clot. I spent another two days after that in a regular room, and I was discharged with a new lifestyle: I was going to have to be on blood thinners (anti-coagulant therapy) for at least 6 months as the PE slowly dissolves, and to prevent the formation of any new clots.

Anti-coagulant therapy is no joke. Your blood is brought to a point where it’s very hard to clot at all, even after minor injuries. I was told to be careful in the kitchen, to switch to an electric razor, to avoid falls, and if I should hit my head, that I should seek emergency room help immediately as even the slightest trauma can trigger a brain bleed. I now sport a Medic-Alert bracelet in case of an accident where I can’t speak for myself, so that providers will know I’m on blood thinners. My blood’s clotting rate needs to be tested constantly because of the danger of spontaneous bleeding if my blood is too thin. I have to avoid all foods with Vitamin K, because Vitamin K helps with clotting. It’s not an easy or comfortable lifestyle at all. If I’m lucky, I’ll be off in six months. But if I should show signs of forming another clot, there are no second chances. I’ll be on anti-coagulants for life after that.

To prevent DVT and its complications, some things to remember are:

1. Move. Try to get some exercise daily. Make sure you take frequent ergo-breaks from your desk or game to get up, stretch, move around, get your circulation going a bit.
2. Exercise your calf muscles while you sit. Try raising and lowering your heels while keeping your toes on the floor, then raising your toes while your heels are on the floor.
3. Make lifestyle changes. Lose weight, quit smoking (nicotine is a clotting culprit), watch hormone pills (birth control or the like), exercise, eat healthy.
4. Consider using compression stockings for any extended travel or desk time. Their efficacy for preventing clots and swelling of the legs and feet are well established.

I was reminded by a nurse that there are millions of us out there with silent killers lurking in our bodies. 80% of PE victims show no signs. I was lucky that I had symptoms that told me something was wrong before it was too late, and I acted on it. But it’s important to remember that none of us should ever think that something like this won’t happen to us. It can happen to anyone. Don’t let it happen to you.

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