What begins for hundreds of thousands of Americans as a dull pain in a leg can turn into a life-threatening episode that all too often baffles even their doctors. A blood clot that starts in an extremity may be small, but if it breaks off and travels to your lungs or heart, it can kill you in hours or even minutes. On Saturday, June 11, the National Blood Clot Alliance is holding its annual walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City to both raise awareness and funds and to honor the memory of Michael Scott, a black journalist who was just 43 when he died of a misdiagnosed blood clot.
“Most people think if they have a sore calf that they’ve just overdone it, but it could be a clot,” Randy Fenninger, CEO of the alliance, said in a phone interview. While clotting is a normal function that stops us from bleeding too much, when blood clots form where they shouldn’t—inside a vein, for example—it can lead to a much more dangerous situation than just a sore leg. “The big risk is that a piece of the clot can break off and travel to the lungs,” he explained. It is exactly this scenario that Fenninger experienced several years ago, leading to his hospitalization. When a blood clot travels to the lungs, it “can block the veins in the lungs and make it hard to breathe.”
And while clots kill more than 100,000 Americans each year, many doctors miss them. The symptoms of a blood clot—soreness, fatigue, trouble breathing, chest pains—mimic many other illnesses, and doctors aren’t always trained to think about clots, even when they can’t find the answer elsewhere.
“Making the diagnosis is not simple,” said Dr. Jack Ansell, professor of medicine at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine and a leading researcher in the field of blood clots. While there are tests, from an ultrasound to a CT scan, that can help doctors identify a clot, many physicians don’t order them or even misread the tests when they do. Ansell feels that the best way to prevent clots from becoming fatal is for patients to understand that they might be at risk and to ask their doctors if they could be suffering from a clot. “Having a clot is not uppermost in physicians’ minds,” he said.
Understanding the risk factors goes a long way when it comes to clots. By far, having surgery or being hospitalized is the leading risk factor for developing a clot. But there are others. Hypertension, diabetes and obesity, which all affect the black community at higher rates, will also leave you vulnerable. (And if you're planning a long trip during the summer, be aware that sitting for more than four hours on a plane, train or other vehicle can also raise your risk.) If you have more than one risk factor—say you’re obese and are over age 60—you are even more at risk. Each year about 1 in 1,000 people suffer from a blood clot, but African Americans have a 40 percent greater chance of getting a clot, according to Ansell, and of being one of the more than 100,000 Americans who die as a result.
Traci Wilkes, who helped found the walk, was almost one of those Americans. She was in her mid-20s and by all appearances totally healthy, but her office job had her sitting for extended hours at a time. She developed a pain in her legs that lasted for months, but her doctor could not figure out what was wrong with her. Soon she was unable to walk; not long after that, she needed to sleep sitting up because if she lay down she couldn’t breathe. She didn’t know it, but the clot that had been causing the pain in her leg had migrated to her lungs, putting her in a life-threatening situation.
She went to the emergency room, where she received a chest X-ray that was alarming enough for her to see a pulmonary specialist, who discovered that she had clots in her lungs.
“I could have died,” she told The Root. The experience left her in the hospital for two weeks, and it took her nearly a year to fully recover. Afterward she became an advocate, encouraging patients to suggest to their doctors that an ailment they can’t understand might just be a clot. “When you do not feel as though you are breathing correctly, or if you have any pain in your legs or swelling or numbness, think about the potential that you might have a blood clot … and if you’re going to a doctor, say: ‘Do you think I potentially have a blood clot?’ Don’t be afraid to ask that question.”
Even superstar athletes are not immune from clots, as Miami Heat player Chris Bosh has shown. He missed part of last season because of a clot that traveled to his lungs, and part of this season as well when his doctors found that the calf pain he was suffering from turned out to be a clot.
Fortunately, once diagnosed, clots can be treated through the use of blood thinners. But catching the clot before it travels in the body is key. Scott, in whose memory the walk will be held, was not so lucky. (Full disclosure: This writer’s partner was a co-worker and friend of Scott’s, and this writer met him on several occasions.) An active runner and boxer, Scott didn’t understand why he was suddenly having trouble breathing. He went to doctors, who told him for months that he had everything from asthma to anxiety attacks. He died on his way to work at ABC News in 2013—another preventable death.
Organizers of this year’s walk hope that Americans will become more aware of the hidden dangers of blood clots so that each one of the 50-60 percent of preventable clots is stopped before they can take any more lives.
The Walk to Stop the Clot will begin at 10 a.m. on June 11 at Foley Square at Lafayette and Duane streets in lower Manhattan. To register for the event or make a donation, visit crowdrise.com/WalktoStopTheClotNYC.
To learn more about how blood clots affect Americans, visit stoptheclot.org/index/blood-clots-in-the-united-states.htm.