Two weeks after surgery I was all alone in the house hunched over and coughing up blood into the toilet. I crawled back to bed and grabbed the phone off the night stand and called my father and asked him to come take me to urgent care. Something was very wrong with me. I couldn’t breath and I couldn’t stop coughing. My entire left leg was swollen. I hadn’t noticed how red and engorged it had become. I had ignored it and assumed it was part of the healing process for the fractured ankle that now had six screws and a plate installed. At urgent care the doctor examined me and did an ultrasound on my leg. In just a few minutes after wiping off the gel on my leg he said, “you need to go to the hospital immediately. Don’t stop off anywhere and call your family to have them meet you there. You have massive blood clots and I’m not sure you’re going to live through the night.”
My world was turned upside down in an instant. I kept repeating the I’m not sure you’re going to live through the night in my head over and over as my father drove me to the hospital. I was only 33 years old. I had fractured my ankle in my driveway by falling on ice as I took out the garbage. I couldn’t believe it since I had just returned from cross country skiing at Moraine Lake in -13 degree weather. I was a climber and extremely fit. I thought I was indestructible and now as I tried to hold still for a chest x-ray I had the technician telling me that he had seen another patient like me the night before that had died. Great bed side manners!
I spent eight days in intensive care. My family hovered over me and worried. I felt sorry for them because there was nothing to do but wait and worry. Each day I was injected with blood thinners and monitored to see if the clots would break loose and either go to my brain and cause me to die by stroke or go to my lungs and kill me with a pulmonary embolism. It turns out that I had developed clots all the way up from the fractured spot in my ankle to my groin. They call it Deep Vein Thrombosis and there was nothing anyone could do but wait and see if I lived or died.
Laying in the hospital bed I experienced a sense of isolation and aloneness that I had never felt. Even though I had numerous family around I was keenly aware that the passage from life to death is a singular experience that cannot be shared.
After eight days I was permitted to leave the hospital with a new life regimen of having to give myself injections and take anticoagulant pills that contained the same ingredients as rat poison daily. My new life was on a strict schedule of doses and weekly exams. I realized that my body was never going to be the same as I used a cane to get to the car after being wheeled out of the front entrance of the hospital. I was still dismayed and filled with the feeling that my body had betrayed me.
It turns out that the surgeon had assumed that due to my relatively young age and level of fitness that I was a low risk for clotting after surgery. If I had been older I would have been put on a blood thinner immediately after surgery. Neither he or I knew that I had a genetic blood disorder called Factor V Leiden that is like a pandora’s box. You can go your whole life without an incident but a fractured extremity opens that box and once it’s open you are a high risk for more clots in the future. The prognosis was that I would be on rat poison for the rest of my life or face eventual premature death.
On my first day back to teaching one of my students came up to me and said his mother wanted to speak with me as soon as possible. She didn’t want to talk on the phone and insisted on a visit in person. I met with her and she delivered a single piece of wisdom that has stuck with me every day since. She had gone through virtually the same medical crisis as I had and had gone through the grief and recovery process associated with it. She told me, “Ira, you will find that all of this is a bitter blessing in disguise. From now on you will wake up and feel gratitude that you are alive!” I was a little taken aback by this and it took a few months to really appreciate how right she was.
A year had gone by and I was feeling lethargic most of the time. I didn’t like how I was feeling since being on the blood thinners and I didn’t like that I was still having to use a cane to walk around. Like many who face chronic conditions, I started researching non-western approaches to my health. I began meditation and reconnected to my faith practice.
One way I tried to make sense of my life was by making photograms in the darkroom that explored my inner struggle between medical science and faith. I developed a deep resolve for healing my body. I began by researching everything I could find out about Factor V Leiden. It turns out that 1 in 5 people have it without knowing.
It is also responsible for many travelers on long flights developing clots. However researchers noted that American business executives traveling back in forth to Japan would often suffer from this while their Japanese counterparts did not.
As I went deeper into the research I looked at the statistical risk factors. I was in my mid thirties with a young son that I wanted to share outdoor adventures with. Every winter we would get season tickets to the ice arena downtown and go skating 3-4 times per week. On the weekends he would take snowboarding lessons while I skied. In the summer we would go hiking and camping with his scout troop.
My personal favorite experience was the time he tried rock climbing and struggled and asked to be lowered back down. He came over to me and asked me if I wanted to give it a try. He didn’t know that I had climbed that route many times before he was born. I enjoyed the moment of his amazement when I made it to the top knowing that in just a few years he would be stronger, faster, and I would be the one amazed by him.
The risk factors of bleeding out from a fall while on blood thinners was greater than the risk of another clot up until the age of around 50 where the two factors intersected. I did not want to keep taking rat poison!
Aspirin therapy wouldn’t work for me because it only prevents the blood platelets from clotting and I didn’t have a problem with that. Mine was a genetic protein clotting disorder. The research into the Japanese business travelers revealed that their diet was high in a traditional food called Nattō which is made from fermented soybeans and contains an enzyme Nattokinase that has the benefit of improving blood pressure and reducing clotting.
At my next appointment with the Hemotologist I asked about the supplement. The doctor said “I’ve never heard of it! But if you don’t mind waiting a for a bit I will go to my office and do some research.” I waited in the exam room for about 15 minutes when he opened the door and exclaimed “I’ll be damned… this will work!” From that day on I stopped taking the rat poison and switched to the natural supplement.
I’m in my Fifties now. I have been really healthy since that year. I managed to lose the cane while on hiking trip near Leavenworth. I didn’t replace it and realized that I hadn’t needed it for quite a while. It had been an emotional crutch more than anything. I needed to take off the training wheels and resume a robust life of the living without fear of dying. I did end up in the hospital recently with symptoms left over from Covid but that actually revealed that overall I am still in extremely good health at least as far as my heart and blood issues are concerned.
Despite this good news I am in and out of doctors office seemingly on a weekly basis. Instead of my father giving me a ride to the urgent care it is me giving my parents rides to their doctor appointments. They are both on extremely complex regimens of prescriptions that I am helping them manage. My father could make a meal out of all the pills he takes daily.
The reason I’m writing this today is because yesterday I was at my mother’s doctor appointment and witnessed her ask her doctor about a new treatment for Osteoporosis. The doctor had never heard of it and seemed dismissive of my mother’s interest in the new therapy. As I sat in the office with them I researched it on my phone. I was so proud of my mother’s awareness of this new therapy that had just been approved by the FDA in 2019. She had done her homework!
One of my pet peeves has always been the pharmaceutical ads on television with their long list of side effects. The ads always end with the phrase ASK YOUR DOCTOR. However, as I listened to my mother talk with her doctor I realized how important it is to ask questions and to not be idle about your healthcare. Those ads I hate do start important conversations and doctors don’t know everything and the really good ones acknowledge it.
I am writing this very early this morning because I have to leave by 7:30am to go pick up my father for another doctor’s appointment. We have a few more questions to ask today! Every day I wake up filled with gratitude and the time I am spending helping my parents navigate their last chapter of life is both humbling and rewarding. We are all on a solo journey at the end but I am filled with appreciation for the life experiences along the way.
Have a great day filled with gratitude.