Julie Park, 22, walked across the stage in May to get her diploma from Rowan University, but she almost didn’t live to reach that milestone.
An ankle injury that caused prolonged periods of inactivity, combined with a nearly 18-hour flight each way for a vacation in Thailand, led the Egg Harbor Township resident to develop deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots in her leg veins, which turned into a deadly pulmonary embolism.
Venous thromboembolism, or blood clots in veins, is the third major cause of cardiovascular death behind heart attacks and strokes, but few people have heard of deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism. Experts say there needs to be better education, as people of all ages are at risk.
“For the first couple days (in Thailand), we were walking a lot and I was limping the whole time,” Park said. “I noticed after that my leg was swelling, but I ignored it. I wound up Googling my symptoms, and WebMD told me it might be clots. It’s not that I didn’t believe it, but I figured it probably wasn’t right.”
An estimated 100,000 people in the United States die each year from deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms, or clots that move from other parts of the body and into the lungs.
Sudden death is the first symptom in about 25 percent of people with pulmonary embolism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Risk factors for deep vein thrombosis include cancer, trauma, periods of inactivity, central venous catheters and a genetic disposition to blood clotting. Weaker risk factors include traveling for long periods, obesity, pregnancy, using birth control pills and varicose veins.
“We typically see it in patients older than 40, but it can really happen to anyone,” said Dr. Deepak Sudheendra, assistant professor of clinical radiology and an expert in deep vein thrombosis at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
During her 10-day vacation in Thailand in January 2016, Park said, she also temporarily experienced back pain when she breathed deeply or laughed. Unbeknownst to her, a blood clot had formed deep in her leg and a piece broke off and traveled to her lungs.
Some people do not experience symptoms, Sudheendra said.
For others, symptoms may include swelling in one or both legs or arms, unusually warm or tender skin at the pain site, skin discoloration, bulging veins and sudden onset of chest pain or shortness of breath.
Upon returning to New Jersey, doctors at Shore Medical Center found massive blood clots in Park’s leg and lungs. She was immediately transferred to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where Sudheendra and a team of vascular interventional radiologists removed the clots.
“Even when they found the clots in my legs, I still didn’t think I’d have to stay at hospital,” she said. “I thought I’d just take some medicine, but after they found the one in my lungs and told me I had to go to UPenn, I realized, I’m not going back to school Tuesday.”
Treatment for blood clots includes anticoagulation, or blood thinning, and clot-busting medications. For people in immediate danger, doctors can remove the clot. Time plays a significant factor in how much damage a blood clot will do, similar to strokes and heart attacks.
Sudheendra said the longer a clot blocks a vein, the more scarring occurs, which increases a survivor’s chance of developing long-term or lifelong complications.
Between 25 and 60 percent of deep vein thrombosis patients develop post-thrombotic syndrome, which can include chronic swelling, pain and skin changes. Suheendra said he will likely oversee Park’s vein care for the rest of her life in order to manage any complications that may develop later in life.
“The main thing is that people should know the symptoms, go to the ER and get evaluated as soon as possible,” he said. “Not a lot of things cause sudden death, but this is one of them, and by knowing the symptoms, it improves the chances of survival.”