It all started with a mysteriously swollen ankle.
A strange series of events that altered my life at least for the short term and possibly for the long term too. And worthy of a warning if you’re reading this too.
Back to the swollen ankle, lower left leg actually.
It ballooned up several hours after an easy 5k run I’ve done dozens of times. It was Sept. 19. I know that because I took a picture of it.
I knew it wasn’t normal, but chalked it up to coming back too quickly after a long layoff. Besides, I had a scheduled appointment for a yearly physical only a few days later so I just went to work and iced it when I got home.
I did not know at the time that the swelling was the first sign of something much more serious, and it would be days before anyone figured it out. Part of that is my fault.
The doctor’s appointment I had scheduled was postponed because it turned out my doctor wasn’t available.
A few days later I suddenly started shivering with chills and went to bed feeling ill. I woke up in the middle of the night with a stabbing pain in my upper right side that felt like someone jabbing a screwdriver between my ribs.
It was one week after the swollen leg. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and contemplated calling 911 but didn’t, thinking I would gut it out and see how I felt in the morning.
That was an epicly bad call.
Eventually out of exhaustion, I fell back asleep and when I woke up, the pain had subsided enough that I went to work.
When the same thing happened the next night and I woke up soaked to the bone in sweat, I did go to the ER at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital, only a few blocks from my house.
I explained my symptoms going back to the swollen ankle, but sadly the ER doctor did not recognize what was happening to me. The swelling in one leg days earlier was the tell-tale sign of a blood clot.
The stabbing pain in my side was my body telling me a fragment of the blood clot in my leg had broken off and travelled through my heart and into my lung, causing a pulmonary embolism. Actually two embolisms. These can be fatal, but because you are reading this you already know, NOT ALWAYS!
Nearly as frustrating as the risk of death, it also endangered vacation plans with my family! For four years, we had been planning a trip with our good friends to Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup.
Tokyo. Rugby World Cup. With family and friends. Tickets, flights and accommodations bought and paid for. All in jeopardy.
Thanks to the care and attention of my family doctor, who ordered a simple blood test that confirmed the ailment, I was immediately sent back to Mount Saint Joseph for an ultrasound that found an eight-centimetre blood clot behind my left knee.
Confirming the pulmonary embolism was a bit more complicated because the only thing in the world that I’m allergic to is imaging dye, which is used in the CT scan that could have shown what was going on my lungs.
Instead, I was sent to St. Paul’s Hospital for a VQ exam.
The interwebs told me: “A ventilation–perfusion (VQ) scan is a nuclear medicine scan that uses radioactive material (radiopharmaceutical) to examine airflow (ventilation) and blood flow (perfusion) in the lungs. The aim of the scan is to look for evidence of any blood clot in the lungs, called pulmonary embolism (PE).”
That’s right, I was about to go nuclear. I ingested minute radioactive particles (sadly, this did not result in any additional superpowers) and they took pictures of my lungs. Embolism confirmed!
I was prescribed blood thinners for six months and was told I could not fly for two weeks.
Because I didn’t seek help right away, and because the clot was not detected during my initial visit to the ER despite the obvious symptoms, it meant not only that I had to confront a very real threat to my life — one I still don’t fully understand (why did the clot happen in the first place?) — it also meant the trip to Tokyo with my family and friends I had been looking forward to for four years was now impossible.
I say all of this not to complain about my own state of affairs but to inform others about the signs and symptoms of a blood clot and hopefully to educate others about what can happen if you ignore the warnings.
I dodged a bullet. There is no other way to look at it.
But thankfully I was able to eke out a few days away with the family this past week when I was finally cleared to fly. However, this has been a massive disruption to my personal and professional life.
Since sharing my story on social media, several people have reached out me. Nick Layson recognized the same symptoms and went to the ER where he was immediately diagnosed with a blood clot.
So if you ever experience “balloon leg” like I did for no reason, seek medical help immediately.
If you don’t, and following that you experience a stabbing pain in your chest and sudden breathlessness, don’t be an idiot like I was, thinking you can “tough it out.” Go. To. The. Hospital.
I should have gone straight to the ER, but instead it was 14 days — 14 DAYS — until I was properly diagnosed and started treatment.
I’ve learned so much about blood clots and deep vein thrombosis since it happened to me and I’m now part of a randomized study of two new blood-thinning medications that so far have proven to be as good with fewer complications than anything on the market now.
My thanks to Dr. Geoffrey Edwards, who followed a hunch after he learned of my symptoms, and Dr. Poupak Rahmani at the St. Paul’s Hospital Thrombosis Clinic, an excellent resource for more information about the risks and treatment of deep vein thrombosis.
I’m in good hands now and on the road to recovery.
Thanks to those of you who’ve shared this journey with me and supported me along the way!