March is Blood Clot Awareness month. Prior to a year ago, I didn’t even know that there was a month dedicated to blood clot awareness. But last year on March 1, I was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in my lung. I was lucky, mine was caught in time, but 10 to 30% of people will die within one month of diagnosis and sudden death is the first symptom in 25% of people who have a pulmonary embolism. When I think about those statistics, it makes me feel panicky. I was 34, active, didn’t smoke, barely drank alcohol, ate relatively healthy, I had none of the factors that predisposed me to having a blood clot, but it happened to me.
I had been feeling a bit run down, but it was February which is often the time of year at work that things just feel kind of blah. My kids had also had a fairly rough winter for illnesses, in fact Hunter was on antibiotics at the time for pneumonia, so my symptoms of exhaustion, slight shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, and nausea did not really alarm me at all. I was actually slightly annoyed that I was sick, as I really did not have the time to go to the doctor, just one more thing that I couldn’t figure out how I could fit into my busy days. Thankfully it was the weekend, so I was hoping with some extra rest, I could kick whatever bug I had and get back to normal.
I first noticed that something was really off when I was reading my kids a story before bed and was really struggling to get the words out. I felt like I just couldn’t get enough air. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, again likening it to my potential pneumonia. The next morning when I got out of bed I felt pretty dizzy, and once again sort of pushed it out of my mind. As the day went on, I noticed that walking up the stairs was really difficult, I’d be very short of breath and start getting tunnel vision at the top. Sunday afternoon we took the kids for a little walk around the block and as we walked I felt my heart racing and started feeling dizzy enough that I had to stop and rest a few times.
Monday morning I woke up, and having a shower to get ready for work left me exhausted. I laid back down on the bed and Darren told me to phone in sick. The thought of having to get a day plan together to send into school just felt so exhausting and I had used up so many of my sick days because Hunter had been so sick that year, so I got myself dressed and went off to work. By the time I got to work, I felt like the world was spinning. The walk from my car to my classroom (maybe 100 metres) left me gasping for air. As I got into my room, my friend in the next classroom asked how my weekend was, and I dissolved into tears. I explained it off as stress and just not feeling good. I lamented to her about how it was such a pain to get a doctor’s appointment, I’d have to call at 8:30 when the office opened, the line would probably be busy, by the time I got through all the appointments would be taken, and on and on. As I was prepping my classroom for the day, I just started feeling worse and worse, so at 8:45 I called my doctor’s office and was shocked that the line was free and they could get me in for an appointment at 2 that afternoon. I’m lucky that the the administrators at my school are super supportive my vice-principal lined up a supply teacher for me for the afternoon, and I spent the rest of the morning feeling good about my decision to get checked out.
By the time 2:00 rolled around, my shortness of breath and overall symptoms of unwell were quite a bit worse. As I described my symptoms to my doctor, he seemed a bit puzzled, and quickly ruled out pneumonia because my chest sounded clear. He could obviously tell that breathing was a struggle however, and told me that he was going to send me for a lung scan the next morning to rule out a pulmonary embolism. It was the first time I had really heard before in reference to something I should care about, as opposed to just hearing it in passing; I didn’t really know what it was. He assured me about two or three times that he was sure that wasn’t what was going on with me, but he needed to rule it out. So I left the office with instructions for my lung scan at the hospital the next morning. I popped into school on my way home to let them know I would be off the next day as well, assuring everyone I would see them Wednesday, because I definitely didn’t have a blood clot, there was no way, right?
I spent that evening feeling terrible, googling (never a good idea), and joking with Darren about how much time off of work a Pulmonary Embolism would get me (it had been a stressful year). I wouldn’t let Darren come with me to the hospital, why would he take a day off of work for no reason? It seemed stupid to me. My mom however, insisted on coming with me. She wanted to drop me off at the front door of the hospital and park the car, I refused to let her do that because “I was fine!” So I huffed and puffed my way into the hospital from the car and got checked in to the place where they would do my lung scan. I must have been the first appointment, as they took me back right away and explained the procedure. I had to breath in some radioactive stuff and then lay in a machine that rotated slowly around my body for about 45 minutes taking pictures every 5 degrees. After that they injected me with a radioactive dye and then took the same pictures, they’d then compare the pictures to see blood flow, versus air flow. From where I was laying, I could see the screen, it was kind of neat to watch. I did notice a weird blacked out area on the scans, but again was so convinced there was nothing wrong, I didn’t think too much of it. They sent me out to the waiting room to wait for a doctor to review the scans. Someone came to get me about 10 minutes later for a chest x-ray. I just assumed that this was standard and they forgot to tell me I was having one.
My mom and I sat and chatted in the waiting room, trying to decide where we were going to go for lunch, since I had this unexpected day off. We had just settled on somewhere in St. Jacobs when a doctor looking person came out and called my name. I stood up and he walked over and told me that I needed to head down to the ER and that he would meet me there. Instantly I my eyes filled with tears, knowing that I was experiencing the worst case scenario.
We went to the ER and bypassed the waiting room, only to be taken back to a waiting room in the treatment area of the ER. Over the course of a few hours, I was poked, prodded, had blood taken, and waited. So much waiting. Eventually the doctor from upstairs took me into an exam room and fired off a bunch of questions at me, told me I had a pulmonary embolism in the left bottom quadrant of my lungs, gave me some blood thinners on the spot, and gave me a prescription for blood thinner and sent me on my way. I left in a bit of a daze, feeling even worse than I had been feeling the last few days.
This past year has gone by in a bit of a blur. I was off of work from March until September. Things weren’t getting better quickly as I had hoped. There were some complications with my heart, and lots of waiting for tests, and then even more waiting for test results. It’s been a year and all of the complications have settled down, but I’m left with a lingering shortness of breath, some regular chest pain, and anxiety and the inability to cope with things the way that I used to be able to. I feel like my reaction to things escalates quickly, leaving me with a rapid heartbeat and a tightening in my chest that I have never experienced before. It is scary, but it is also my new normal. I’m hoping that over time it slowly goes away.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This didn’t kill me. I’m not entirely sure how much stronger I feel, but I’ve definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things in my life. Life is short, and there is no sense being unhappy with situations we find ourselves in. I’m finding that I am much more selfish when it comes to my needs. It’s easier to say no when I don’t want to do something, and it also gave me perspective on the people that are most important to me. When something so major happens, you really learn who your people are. Relationships I had with many people were either strengthened, or shattered; I needed to be a taker (as much as it was incredibly difficult for me), and I didn’t have a whole lot to give to people. It gave me some clear perspective on the people that I need and want in my life. I think that that alone was a silver lining on a dark cloud.
I’ve also started taking better care of myself. I urge everyone to do this more. Sometimes as a working mother, I spent so much time being “perfect” at home and at work, that I did not notice the toll it was taking and that the exhaustion and stress I was feeling was not as necessary as I thought it was. I’m actually a healthier and happier person when I put my own needs first sometimes, and that makes me so much better for my family and in my job.
So, in March, Blood Clot Awareness month, I share my story with hope that someone else goes to the doctor at the beginning of their symptoms and not try to be a hero. If I would have kept my hero facade going for any longer, I may not have been here to write this.