I never thought I would say I am passionate about the subject of pulmonary embolisms. Roughly two years ago, I was working at a summer camp. Throughout that summer, I began to develop ovarian cysts along with having other menstruation problems. My mom and I agreed that visiting a gynecologist was a good idea. We went a few weeks later and after presenting my symptoms, my gynecologist suggested getting on oral contraceptives to regulate my cycle and decrease the levels of pain I was experiencing. She gave me a pamphlet about oral contraceptives to read later. I went home, read over the material, and talked with my parents. We agreed this could be a good way to help my pain and I began to take the medication.
Flash forward about six months to January 2017, where I find myself waking up at my cousin’s house feeling some unusual pain. My ribs were hurting. This pain would disappear for a while and then come back. At first, I just assumed I had slept in a weird position on my cousin’s couch. However, I came back to my cousin’s house a few days later and the pain had not gone away. I ran upstairs to grab a piece of paper and came back down. I was completely out of breath. I thought to myself, “Wow that is pathetic. I could have done that 10 times a month ago without breaking a sweat. What is wrong with me?” I mentioned it to my mom who also found it strange. Over the next few days, my pain increased dramatically, and I kept experiencing shortness of breath. At times, the pain was almost unbearable. Sleeping was horribly uncomfortable. After we realized the severity of the issue, my parents decided it was time to get some help.
“I just assumed I had slept weird…”
We went to our family physician whose first thought was that I had developed walking pneumonia. He also mentioned a pulmonary embolism, but that this was incredibly unlikely. He sent me to the hospital to get a chest x-ray for the possibility of pneumonia. I got a call saying my x-ray was clear and my physician wanted me to come back in. I returned to my physician and he said I may have a pulmonary embolism. I was dumb-founded. I thought only unhealthy, older adults got blood clots. How could I?
They went on to say I should get a CT and some blood testing. My dad insisted on a blood test called a D-dimer which can be used to reveal a clot. When my results came back, my numbers were drastically off. We got this call on Thursday evening and by this point, my pain was almost unbearable. Our health insurance was complex, so my parents wanted me to wait until the morning, so we could get a CT at a cheaper location. That night, I slept in my parent’s room for the first time since I was a little girl. I could no longer find a sweet spot that was pain-free because everything hurt.
“I was dumbfounded.”
Finally, it was the morning and we made our way to the location for the CT. I was trying to maintain a level of calm because I knew my fear and reaction would scare my parents and only make this worse. During the CT, I was cold and frightened, but I tried to not let it show. After the CT, we had to wait a few hours for them to read the test. My mom wanted to go shopping and dragged me along despite my complaints of pain and exhaustion. After an hour in a store, we got the call that I did indeed have a pulmonary embolism and I should seek medical attention immediately.
My mom sped to the emergency room where I was immediately seated in a wheelchair and triaged to receive instant care. For the next few hours, I was transported from test to test. I got blood tests, heart tests, breathing tests, and leg tests. I was poked and prodded yet treated with utmost care. When I was finally placed in a room, I was hooked up to an IV where I received fast-acting anti-coagulants, medications to thin my blood. I was still in a lot of pain and not eating, but I was deeply supported by my boyfriend and parents who were attentive to my every need. Earlier that morning I had weighed myself and by that night, I discovered I had lost eight pounds. My body was fighting hard. I will never forget what my doctor said the following morning, “You are supposed to be here young lady because many people don’t make it through this experience alive. One in three people with this condition die.” I just nodded when he said that. I didn’t really understand the magnitude of his statement.
“My body was fighting hard!”
The next day, I was released from the hospital with many instructions and needles to continue the process of giving myself stronger anticoagulants while we were waiting for the normal pills to thin my blood to the right level. All the time I was at the hospital, I felt oddly calm. It felt like hundreds of people oversaw my care. However, as soon as we left the hospital, I felt an emotion that I had not felt in such a dramatic way before and that was anxiety. In the coming days, weeks, and months, that anxiety would fluctuate. Sometimes I would feel fine and sometimes I felt like I would surely be dead within the next hour.
The day after I was released, my head hurt so badly that my parents took me back to the ER to ensure that I did not have a bleed in my brain. Since then, I have been to the ER three other times as a result of this clot with symptoms which mirror my original pulmonary embolism. The fear that occurred during my experience resurfaces for my parents, close friends, and myself every time this happens. The likelihood of another pulmonary embolism is much higher for me since I have already had one. However, each time the ER doctors have turned me away saying that I am okay even though I do not feel okay. It is challenging for me to wrap my mind around the need to listen to my body, but to not listen to my body too much and focus on little bits of pain which are nothing to worry about.
Having a pulmonary embolism changed me. Before this experience, I rarely had any health problems. I was a three-sport athlete in high school and maintained a high level of physical activity in college. My deepest levels of stress were a result of maintaining an almost perfect GPA. I constantly said yes to anything people asked me to do. Since having a pulmonary embolism, almost everything has changed. I have seen more health care professionals in the last 1.5 years than in the rest of my life combined. I have had more medical tests and taken more medication. I have switched my physical fitness to mostly light to moderate levels of exercise. I have learned to fight the fears deep inside which whisper lies in the night through counseling.
“Almost everything has changed.”
The odd thing was that I appeared to be the same person to those around me. I had to say no to my friends asking me to play sports and I had a few more pricks and bruises on my stomach. But in general, I appeared to be the same as before. However, I was not the same. This experience forced me to come to grips with my own mortality. At 20 years old, I faced a life-threatening condition which is unusual. It also forced me to take steps to take control of my own health. I have been given only one body in which I can either choose to honor or abuse. It revealed how grateful I should be for the simple things in life such as being able to go for a run on a nice day or not having to give myself an injection every single day. Finally, it revealed how grateful I am to have a constant life-line to my Lord and Savior. In the middle of the night, when no one else could help me, I would talk to the Lord and He heard my cry.
This situation honestly could have been much worse. Somehow, I continued living my life relatively normally for over ten days after I first experienced symptoms. During this time the large clot traveled through my heart to my lung. Thankfully, I was young, healthy, and strong. Otherwise, this problem could have been even more serious. God was watching out for me throughout this time and He daily provided strength when I thought my human fear was too overpowering. He provided financially repeatedly so what could have been a huge burden for my family turned out to be a blessing.
“God was watching out for me…”
Throughout this experience, I have learned more about myself and more about human nature. Humans are a deeply determined species. We are built to fight off even the most serious of attacks. We are also built to adapt to what life throws our way. We may become fearful, anxious, and upset, but we will press on. For me personally, I had an innate attitude of optimism and determination. I chose to fight this condition and not allow the fear surrounding it to defeat me, even though it did debilitate me at times. Many incredibly good things came from this experience, but one of the most impactful for me were the countless people who reached out to me and went above and beyond to display care for me. These interactions opened my eyes to my support system of people who chose to pray words of hope and peace over me during this tumultuous time.
At this point, I am almost back to where I was physically before my pulmonary embolism, but I will never be the same. I am back to painful menstrual cycles and will never be prescribed another oral contraceptive again. I am vigilant about listening to my body and have maintained generally low to moderate levels of exercise intensity. Almost daily, I fight the lies of anxiety falsely telling me that I am not healed. However, the gratitude I feel for God sparing life and my return to almost normal levels of activity overshadows my remaining effects.