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A blood clot almost killed the Elite Eight referee

blood clot lung
(© Yury – stock.adobe.com)

Remember the referee who collapsed early in the Gonzaga-USC Elite Eight game, that we were told on TV had been informed he was going to be fine?

Turns out Bert Smith wouldn’t have been fine if he hadn’t been convinced after the game to go to the hospital to get checked out.

A blood clot in Smith’s lung had caused him to pass out.

Could’ve, probably would’ve, killed him.

Smith told Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star that he remembered having issues running the stairs at the hotel the night before the Elite Eight game, which was unusual for the super fit 6’3”, 195-pound Smith, who works 90 NCAA basketball games a year, and is as close to peak condition for a 56-year-old as you can be.

“For me, it didn’t seem like a red flag,” Smith said. “As the doctor says: ‘Sometimes you don’t get a red flag. Sometimes it just hits you.’ I don’t know which bucket I’m in.”

This all happened to Smith live on national TV on March 29.

I had my own episode two weeks earlier with a blood clot in my left lung that grew into a near-fatal pulmonary embolism.

My red flags had dated back a month from my visit to the emergency room on March 13. A sharp pain in my left leg coincided with a sudden loss of power on my daily runs and Peloton bike rides, and issues getting winded walking up the stairs.

I thought maybe I’d had a bad cold, maybe bronchitis, and brushed it off, until my wife convinced me to go to see our primary care physician, who determined after a routine EKG that I needed an ambulance ride to the ER.

The doctors, in my case, initially assumed I was having a cardiac episode, before I mentioned that my father had died in 2008 from a pulmonary embolism, at which point they ordered up an MRI to get a look at my lungs.

The blockage was enough that it may have been fatal if I’d waited the weekend to go to the doctor.

In Smith’s case, he had been given a clean bill of health at the arena and sent back to the hotel.

Fellow officials, fearing that he may have suffered a concussion from his fall to the floor, convinced him to go to the hospital to at least rule out anything in the way of a head injury.

The doctor said something didn’t add up, that she wanted to know what had caused Smith to black out.

What she found saved his life.

“You don’t know where that clot was going next,” Smith said.

Smith got a two-night stay in the hospital to let the blood thinners do their work.

I myself had an overnight stay, and two weeks of recovery at home.

Fortunately, today, not even a month from going to the ER, I’m back to as close to as 100 percent as I can be, or deserve to be, anyway.

The hardest thing for me over the past four weeks was overcoming the mental part of what almost happened to me.

I think of myself, like it seems Smith thinks of himself, as a fit guy. I’ve run three marathons; I do a 45-minute Peloton ride every day, probably more intense than anything I ever did on a marathon course.

Every flutter, every twitch, in the first couple of weeks had me checking my pulse, my blood pressure.

I don’t want to miss any more red flags, so really until earlier this week, everything was a red flag.

I think I’m past that now. What I never want to get past is being grateful that I finally paid attention to that last red flag.

“It puts in perspective the value of each day,” Smith said, “because we all go through our lives – we’re all guilty of it – and we just live, right? But do we say ‘I love you’ enough? Do we give an extra hug enough? Do we do the things with our family and friends that have value to them? When you live something like I did, it hits you square in the eyes that you really have to value each day.”

Smith hates that what happened to him was so public, but then, he also realizes he’s lucky things played out the way they did.

The story in the Indy Star concludes with Smith noting that he’d received well wishes from more than 500 people, including from all walks of the basketball world.

I lost count of my well wishes, but the texts, emails and cards – including one from the Virginia hoops coaching staff – have certainly humbled me.

Like Smith, like probably all of you reading this, I tend to take for granted each day, each tomorrow.

You like to think that some of what you do has an impact on other folks, but you may never know for sure.

The reach-outs have been a big help as I work to recover physically, mentally and emotionally.

One thing I’m committing myself to going forward is being an advocate for highlighting what we know about blood clots and pulmonary embolisms.

I’m still new to this, so I’m learning, but my goal is to make it so that more folks are aware of what they’re feeling, how important it is to listen to your body, to get things checked out.

I almost didn’t have any more tomorrows, so if I can help even just one person have more tomorrows, then this new lease on life that has been granted to me will have had some value.

Story by Chris Graham


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augusta free press news


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