Deep Vein Thrombosis: I Thought It Was Just a Sprained Ankle

Melissa Daly's simple injury turned into a life-threatening problem: deep vein thrombosis. Here's what went wrong, and how to keep this from happening to you.


melissa-daly-dvt
Alexa Miller

Injuring your ankle shouldn't be a big deal, right? I was 35 and other­wise in perfect health. But three weeks after I sprained and broke mine by tripping on a stair, I was being rushed to a hospital, weak, gasping for air, literally minutes from death.

What happened? It turned out that a large blood clot—a serious condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT)—formed in my leg as I tried to recuperate. The clot broke off and traveled to my lungs (what's known as a pulmonary embolism), where it blocked blood flow—and threatened my life. You may recall that in 2003 NBC correspondent David Bloom died from a pulmonary embolism after being dehydrated and sleeping curled up in a tank for weeks while reporting in Iraq. And recently, tennis champion Serena Williams made headlines when she was hospitalized and treated for a pulmonary embolism and related complications (see "Behind Serena's Scare," below).

Easy to miss

Unfortunately, my doctors failed to recognize DVT when it developed, probably because the injury was fairly straightforward at first. In the emergency room, X-rays showed a small bone chip in my ankle, in addition to the sprain. The physician gave me a splint and crutches, and told me to keep my leg elevated and iced. When I followed up with an orthopedist, he said it was a sprained ankle that would take six to eight weeks to heal and would look worse before it got better. That's why I wasn't terribly surprised when my ankle became even more swollen and turned bluish-purple.

But after about a week, when I was first able to put some weight on my ankle, I started to feel a stabbing pain in my calf that got worse and worse. Even the pressure from a pillow felt agonizing. No amount of pain reliever helped. When I couldn't get back in to see that ortho, I went to a different one. But he had no idea why my calf was hurting so much. "I've never seen anything like this," he confessed. He told me to stay off my leg and keep it immobilized. Another mistake.

About three weeks after the injury, I woke up shaking and couldn't catch my breath—I felt nauseated and light-headed. My husband called an ambulance.

At the ER, a nurse took my O2 reading, which shows how much oxygen is in the blood. It was at 50 percent and dropping—a sign that there was a problem in my lungs. My blood pressure was also dropping, they saw that I was wearing a splint, and when asked I'd told them I was on birth control pills—all red flags.

The ER staff sprang into action, with the doctor issuing rapid-fire orders, reading off my vitals and preparing me to be intubated. All the commotion started to freak me out—I couldn't breathe, and I was being held down. "Can you wait till I calm down?" I pleaded. "No," he barked. "We need to stop the clotting now." He injected me with a blood thinner, which is probably why I'm alive today. I spent the next 36 hours in a drug-induced coma, breathing through a respirator. Then I spent six days recuperating in the hospital.


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By Melissa Daly as told to Aviva Patz
Last Updated: May 12, 2011

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