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

"I started to feel a stabbing pain in my calf that got worse and worse."

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Photo: Getty Images

Injuring your ankle shouldn't be that big a deal, right? I was 35 and other­wise in perfect health. But three weeks after I tripped on a stair, causing a sprain and a fracture, I was rushed to a hospital, weak, gasping for air, literally minutes from death.

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

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 or PE), where it blocked blood flow—and threatened my life.

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 in 2011, tennis champion Serena Williams made headlines when she was hospitalized and treated for a pulmonary embolism and related complications.

Approximately 900,000 Americans are affected by venous thromboembolism (VTE) every year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (VTE is yet another name for DVTs and PEs.) Nearly 100,000 people die each year from blood clots, which are also a cause of sudden death. One in 4 people who have a pulmonary embolism—as I did—die without warning.

DVTs are easy to miss

Unfortunately, my healthcare providers failed to recognize the 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 healthcare provider gave me a splint and crutches and told me to keep my leg elevated and iced. When I followed up with an orthopedist (a doctor who is specialized in the musculoskeletal system), I was told 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 orthopedist, I went to a different one, who had no idea why my calf was hurting so much but advised me to stay off my leg and keep it immobilized. Another mistake.

Hospitalized for a Pulmonary Embolism

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 serious problem in my lungs. My blood pressure was also falling. When they saw that I was wearing a splint and learned that I was on birth control pills, they sprang into action.

One provider issued rapid-fire orders, reading off my vitals and preparing me to be intubated (when a special tube is inserted for breathing). 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," the healthcare provider said. "We need to stop the clotting now." They 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.

Lessons Learned

In a perfect world, the ER providers I saw when I first got injured (or the orthopedists who examined me later) would have advised me to take steps to avoid developing DVT, such as stretching my legs as much as possible, even in the splint. When your legs are inactive for more than a couple of hours, blood can pool there and increase the risk of developing DVT, particularly if you have other risk factors. That's why long airplane rides can be hazardous. Taking birth control pills, as I did, can also increase your risk—by up to four times—because they increase your blood's tendency to clot.

I was on blood thinners for six months to prevent a recurrence, and I had several follow-up appointments. Once you've had DVT, you're at a higher risk of getting it again, so I now take preventive measures: I've gone off birth control pills, I drink lots of water (dehydration can contribute to the risk of blood clots), and I stretch constantly.

Since pregnancy also raised my risk for another episode of DVT, I saw an ob-gyn who specialized in high-risk patients, and I was on special blood thinners before, during, and after my pregnancy.

Still, I wanted to prove to myself that I had really recovered. So, a few months after my DVT ordeal, I started running; a year later, I completed a marathon in San Francisco. It's the second greatest accomplishment of my life, after the birth of my son.

As told to Aviva Patz

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