Today marks the seventh anniversary since I suffered a pulmonary embolism—which is defined as a condition where a blood clot blocks one or more arteries in the lungs. The blood clot usually travels from the leg or the pelvis, up through the heart, and settles into the lungs. If the clot is large or if it is not diagnosed in time, a pulmonary embolism can be fatal.
In my case, I was told that I had a “multiple, bilateral pulmonary embolism event,” meaning I had many small blood clots in both lungs. And, the doctors had no idea where they came from because my legs and pelvis showed no signs of clots.
Even after seven years, I can remember it like it was yesterday. The day unfolded very strangely. My son had a day off from school, and we hung out together, running errands. The most important of which was buying a new, stacked washing machine and dryer combination for our condo. We were replacing the one that caught fire the day before.
While we were out, I kept feeling this nagging pain that felt like it was in my back, under my left shoulder blade. Nothing I did would relieve the pain. I took Tums practically all day, thinking the pain was gas or indigestion.
By dinnertime, my heart was racing, and the pain moved more toward my chest. After a few bites of dinner, I decided to lie down and rest, but that was interrupted by shooting pains in and down my left arm and upward into the left side of my neck.
By this time, my son had concluded, from a quick web search of my symptoms, that I was having a heart attack.
From that moment, everything seemed to move in slow motion. We should have called the ambulance, looking back. Instead, I gave him directions as he drove me to the hospital emergency room. We made it there, and it wasn’t very long before I was in triage, where they clocked my pulse at 165 bpm and my blood pressure was very high. After that, the next thing I remember was being ushered to a bed and being hooked to oxygen and an IV. Then, the nurse told me she was giving me pain medicine and told me to “ride the high.”
I met the doctor who told me that she suspected a pulmonary embolism and was ordering a CT scan of my chest. It was then that they gave me my first shot of heparin, just in case the ER doctor’s assumption was correct. She said that time was of the essence, and that if she was wrong about the diagnosis, the shot would not cause any harm. But, it would save my life if she were right.
When the nurse gave me the results, her delivery was almost like a happy song. “So, your doctor was right. You do have a pulmonary embolism.” Maybe that’s how they’re trained to give bad news?
The peculiar thing is that I didn’t even know what pulmonary embolism meant. I knew it was serious, but I felt a disconnect with what was going on. Maybe it was the medication they gave me or maybe it was my coping mechanism. All I remember is that time kind of stood still in that moment. My son was staring at me, and by that time, my sister had arrived. I remember staring back at them, and by the looks on their faces, knowing we were all thinking the same thing—am I going to die tonight?
I’m not sure if it’s healthy to commemorate such an event. My son doesn’t think so. He doesn’t like to remember that night. I suppose it depends on how you’re seeing it. If you’re mourning it as a terrible event in your life, then I guess it’s not healthy after many years have passed.
But, for me, that night and the eight subsequent days that I spent in the hospital represents a victory. It’s a celebration of surviving a potentially catastrophic event and embracing the redirection it caused in my life. Sure, the pain was unbearable, worse than childbirth. No joke. The inability to take a deep breath without excruciating pain was beyond frightening. My irregular heartbeat and the constant buzzing and dinging of the “monitored” hospital bed in the intensive care unit were constant reminders of how sick I was.
Through it all, I remained feisty and determined not to die. God and I had some serious conversations while I lay in that hospital bed. Some were in my head, and some out loud that I’m sure the nurses heard. I asked God to keep me alive so that I could see my son, my only child, graduate from high school in six weeks. As it was, I was in the hospital and missed his senior choral recital and his senior prom. His prom pictures are of him and his date, not at home on the lawn, but in my hospital room. I wasn’t afraid of dying, but I was desperate to stay alive for my son. I worked so hard to raise him, and I wanted to see the fruits of my labor, darn it!
So, here I am seven years later, thankful several things: first, that I not only saw him graduate from high school, but I was also there for his college graduation, and I fully expect to be there when he gets his graduate degree and gets married and has children someday.
Second, that the illness led me to move to live with my mother in Las Vegas, where I met the man who would become my husband three years later.
Third, but not least, I’m also thankful to know now that the mysterious pulmonary embolism was related to Lupus, which at that time was not diagnosed. I began Coumadin therapy a few days after that fateful day, and I will continue taking it for the rest of my life so that I don’t experience another episode.
I won’t go as far as having a party to commemorate this day each year. But, I do have my special conversation with God, thanking him for every day and all the blessings that He has given me since April 30, 2008.
P.S. — For more information about pulmonary embolism, please see The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s web page entitled, “What Is a Pulmonary Embolism?”