I went to sleep that May evening pondering a strange sensation in my chest. My heart was racing. Was it the coffee I drank to help me stay focused on the pile of papers I was grading? Since I got that job last winter, I spent innumerable hours doing what college teachers do: grading, preparing the lectures, staring at the computer screen, and glued to my chair. I got up the next morning feeling overwhelmingly tired. I barely made it downstairs to have breakfast, I felt so close to fainting. Warm food made me feel better. “It’s just a few classes today,” I thought. “I will be back early and get some extra sleep.”
I collapsed in the hallway of my college, after climbing steep stairs while carrying a 40-pound book bag and heading in to teach my third class of the day. When I opened my eyes, my head was throbbing; two of my students were leaning over me asking if I was OK. I felt a warm trickle of blood over my right brow. Apparently, I passed out and hit my head. My students immediately called 911. One of my colleagues, a paramedic, rushed up from the floor below after hearing the crash of my fall through the wooden floorboards. By the time my husband arrived at the hospital in Saranac Lake – an hour drive from our home – the doctor there told him that I had extensive clots in both of my lungs and my life could only be saved if I were airlifted to the UVM Medical Center.
My poor husband had a long drive home after watching that Angel Flight Helicopter take off over the mountains. The compassion of the people that I work with and the care of the doctors at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake stunned me. I realized how grave the situation was as I looked out the windows of the helicopter; I wondered if I would see my beautiful husband and family again.
Once at the UVM Medical Center, I learned that I was not a candidate for a “clot buster,” because of the injury to my head. The doctors explained that I could bleed into my brain. By then, it seemed things have calmed down a little. I knew what was wrong. I was receiving treatment. I was still puzzled as to why I could not tolerate the slightest exertion. Sitting at a bedside commode took my breath away. I was also asked about the pain or swelling in my legs. Looking back, I remembered the pain of my left leg last year, first in my calf, then under my knee, and then in the back of my thigh. I ignored it. I had no medical insurance, was too busy to think about it and the symptoms got better, anyway. Come to think of it, two days before my collapse I felt some of that discomfort in my left thigh. The next day, after two more tests, I was told that the clot in my leg extended from my calf all the way to the main vein in my body, right under my kidneys. That was the source of the clot in my lungs, potentially more to break free. I would need an “umbrella” in the main vein to stop the clot. The ICU doctors told me as well that the echocardiogram showed my heart “struggling” against the large clot obstructing blood flow in my lungs.
The procedure, performed by the interventional radiology physician through a large intravenous catheter, was not as bad as I thought, so, after prescribed two hours of lying flat in my bed, I decided to brave it, stand on my feet and take a walk around my bed. I think I did a good job. It was my last chance today, as I was settling for the night.
My family was told that as I laid back to rest, my heart stopped several times, as the ICU team revived me each time with CPR. I required chest compressions and the clot-dissolving medication. I was put on a respirator. I may never be the same. The next two days my body was trying to survive, my circulation system gave up. I required medications to push my heart to pump. My kidneys stopped working. I had several large intravenous lines placed. I bled. I needed transfusions.
I will never know the details of what happened those days, but I saw the fear in the eyes of my loved ones. When I heard my son Tom at the bedside, I realized how close I came to not ever seeing them again. He was stationed in Washington. They would only release him for one reason…
The recovery took a long time. They were able to remove the breathing tube fairly quickly and my breathing was OK, but right away I noticed how painful coughing was. I realized this was the price to pay for the successful chest compressions. Speaking was difficult. I kept on scribbling, “What happened?” on the little white board I was given to help communicating. I remembered the explanation for a few minutes and then I would write the same question again. My short-term memory was gone and the blessing was, I did not know it. The journal I kept is a painful reminder of what I could have become. The word “vegetable” kept on re-surfacing in my thoughts.
It is around that time that I met my hematologist, Dr. Margaret Kennedy. Apparently the huge clot in my left leg was not responding to treatment. She suggested a clot buster again, this time through a catheter that would go directly into the clot. “Bleeding into the brain” was the association imprinted in my memory from the first conversation with the doctors. I was scared! Proceeding with that plan also meant another trip to the interventional radiology suite and being back in the ICU. I could never handle this if it was not for my family. My brain “fuzziness” made it so difficult to make basic decisions.
The silver lining of the clouds that gathered were people that welcomed me back to intensive care unit. I now finally met the people who saved my life. Dr. Charlotte Teneback, the ICU attending physician had the “hands-on” input into my survival. I would love to name the ICU nurses and the nurses on 4th floor of the UVM Medical Center but I cannot remember their individual names. They were angels, every one of them. So were the physical therapists (Michelle became my friend and coach), the nurses’ aides and the housekeeping staff. Their kindness was yet another gift from God. I am doing well, because of the care rendered by my hematologist, Dr. Margaret Kennedy, who made me better through her ministrations and precise attention to detail. She is a brilliant physician who balances empirical knowledge with passion and compassion. Words cannot express my gratitude for her presence, her diligence and the depth of her knowledge.
The procedure was a success. After 24 hours of treatment the clot disappeared. I did not bleed again. The old bruise above my right eye and a purple right thigh were the reminders of what my body has been through. I felt I would be nursing emotional bruises for much longer.
This happened five months ago. I am taking a blood thinner now. The future well-being is by no means certain. I sometimes wonder, in the break I get from prolonged sitting: how many people realize that the leg symptoms, so frequently dismissed, may be a harbinger of a condition that can end or change your life?
Kimberly Duffey is a college professor; She teaches business and computer science at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake and Malone, NY. She is the wife of R.J. Duffey, and the mother of five exceptionally wonderful grown children, three of whom are active duty military officers.