Everything you wanted to know about my bout with pulmonary embolism, but were afraid to ask
Now I know that one in four people who have a PE die suddenly, taking the lives of as many as 180,000 Americans a year.
And unlike the health story of the past year, COVID-19, there’s no vaccine for a pulmonary embolism.
There are similarities between the two.
Like COVID, PE is more deadly with more vulnerable populations – seniors, people who have had recent surgery or extended hospitalization, people with cancer.
Obesity and smoking are also factors.
But then, largely unlike COVID, PE can strike strong, healthy people in the prime of their lives, out of the blue.
This is why some refer to pulmonary embolism as a “silent killer.”
I lost one friend who had been on an international flight and experienced issues after landing, for example.
It can be as simple as that – sitting on a plane, a train, in an automobile, for an extended period of time.
I’ve read stories the past few days of other endurance athletes who’d had issues that they were able to sleuth later as having been the result of simply not properly hydrating before and after training runs or rides, or traveling a long distance before or after a race.
The commonality in all cases is that a PE begins as a deep vein thrombosis – the medical term for a blood clot developing in the large veins in your legs, usually in the calves.
Think of a clot inside your body the same as one on the outside when you get a cut.
Your blood clots to keep you from bleeding to death, right?
On the inside, your blood does something similar to deal with internal traumas, in a process that is ongoing 24/7 without you ever being aware.
Almost all the time, the clots on the inside – like the ones on the outside – eventually clear themselves out.
When they become a problem on the inside is the point at which they grow large, then break off and travel through the bloodstream toward your heart.
There a large clot can lodge in your lungs and restrict breathing, making your heart pump harder – and if it grows big enough, it can lead to a fatal heart attack.
Those are the cases that lead to the sudden fatalities that claim the up to 180,000 American lives a year.
The more I’ve learned about my case, the more I realize that I probably wasn’t at risk of sudden fatality, though that’s probably from a combination of luck and the good health of being an endurance athlete.
MyHeart.net breaks down PEs into three categories – massive, submassive and other.
Massive, obviously, the worst – the patient is unstable, on the verge of a massive heart attack. This is where the bulk of the fatal cases are.
The submassive category involves those who appear to be relatively stable, but whose blood tests suggest heart strain and weakening.
Those in the submassive PE category are more at risk of life-long complications due to damage to the heart and lungs.
I’m in the other category – and most PEs are the other category.
The blood tests that I’ve had done – and they’ve taken so much blood from me, y’all, that they could build another me, though care would have to be taken to ensure that he wouldn’t end up rooting for Duke and working in finance – don’t show anything in terms of impact on the heart, on my kidneys, my liver.
Which isn’t to say that I’ve not been scared out of my wits the past few days.
I mean, I’ve been dealing with this for four weeks.
I thought I had a cold, back when the original symptoms – primarily, slight difficulty breathing, coughing and weakness – presented themselves.
The symptoms didn’t necessarily worsen from onset; they just didn’t go away.
I kept Googling what could be the cause, because it didn’t make sense that a cold could last two weeks, three weeks, four weeks.
I finally made the connection to what had happened to my father, went to my doctor, who sent me by ambulance to the emergency room.
The treatment regimen is blood thinners and slowing down – the slowing down being the hard part for me.
I’m used to ripping off six-mile runs just for fun, going on 20-plus-mile bike rides.
I had to stop myself yesterday after doing a quarter-mile of laps in my backyard.
The blood thinners don’t break up the current clot in my lung; they keep it from getting bigger, but it needs to break up on its own.
The good health vitals that I have as a baseline – the resting heart rate of 49 beats per minute, no issues with my heart, kidneys, liver – will help me the next few weeks as this process goes on.
And actually, it may be and probably will be months before I’m back to what I consider normal – ripping off those six-mile runs and 20-plus-mile bike rides.
Which isn’t to say that I won’t be getting a little better every day.
I think a positive mental attitude helps in general in life, and it certainly helps when you’re working to overcome a health scare.
At some point, we’ll figure out what the cause of my clot was.
No long trips in a plane, train or automobile. No obvious trauma.
I work a desk job, but I’m also an endurance athlete.
I don’t know that I’m any more or less hydrated than the average person.
I’ll pay attention to that more, definitely.
I’ll pay more attention to getting up from the desk during the day.
And I’ll make it a point to listen to my body better in the event that something like this were to ever happen again.
Even if it’s the case that my PE wasn’t life-threatening or life-altering, it could have been – and I gave the clot four weeks to grow and maybe do more damage, put me more at risk.
I’m writing this for a couple of reasons.
I’ve found out the past few days that I’m fortunate to have a lot of folks around me, physically and virtually, who care, and I’ve been a bit overwhelmed to find that out, and to receive so many well wishes.
Thanks to all who’ve reached out. I’m humbled.
So, here’s your update.
To borrow from the Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, I’m day-to-day, but aren’t we all?
The second reason: to stress, if you have anything resembling the symptoms that I’ve described here, don’t wait four weeks.
Seek. Medical. Attention. Right. Away.
Looks like I’ll be lucky and get through this. You may not if you wait.
A couple of other motivations come to mind here.
One, get in control of your health. If this was going to happen to me anyway in the month of February 2021, it probably helped in the month of January 2014, back when I weighed just under 300 pounds, that I decided to try to lose weight, and eventually worked myself down to my current 180.
Two, appreciate life, every day. Again, it’s probably the case that I wasn’t as near to death as I originally thought, but when you have cardiologists sitting at your side talking about bypass surgery, when they engage the stroke-team process and do an MRI of your brain looking for aneurysms, it can make you think some wild thoughts.
Honestly, that may be the hardest – and, oddly, best – part for me right now.
Hardest because, man, it can all go away in a flash.
Best because, if anything will make you appreciate life, it’s thinking that you’re near-death.
Hug your loved ones, tell them you love them.
Call your college buddy that you haven’t talked to in a long while.
Enjoy loud music, a good drink, a thick steak.
Don’t take any of it for granted. I’m not.
Story by Chris Graham