If you’ve heard my birthday story before, please remember and share the most important lesson: take care of yourself!
My worst birthday was the one I skipped–literally. In 2008 I went to Australia for work, leaving the day before my birthday. With the time change, I got off the plane the day after my birthday. I did celebrate my birthday before changing my watch. I woke up a few hours out of LAX, asked the steward for a glass of wine and watched WALL-E.
I enjoyed the comfort and attentive service of Business Class, which on a flight to Australia is even nicer than First Class on domestic flights. But, the spacious seats turned out to be a curse. Since I am short, I curled up my legs to get more comfortable–something I could never do in a coach seat–and I slept for hours at a time. At some point, my right calf started to ache. I figured it was a delayed twinge from my last run, or from walking through LAX, or from getting bumped by someone’s suitcase. I stretched it a bit and tried to ignore it.
My flight from LAX landed in Sydney, and then I had to change planes to get to my destination in Melbourne. When I finally arrived at my hotel, my calf really hurt. I went so far as to Google “DVT,” but I decided that I didn’t fit the profile for “coach class syndrome” since (1) I had been in Business Class and (2) I am not an overweight, out of shape business man.
As part of my strategy to adjust to the 14 hour time difference, I spent the afternoon out and about, walking through the Queen Victoria Gardens and visiting an art gallery. My leg seemed to get better as I kept moving, and I was able to stay out long enough to stay awake until dinner time.
Throughout the first half of my 10-day stay “down under,” my leg was tight in the morning, but got better as I moved around. I kept up with my gym workouts for the first few days, but had to trade the treadmill for the elliptical. For the second half of my trip, my work took me to a retreat at a golf resort in Yarra Valley. After one morning in the gym, I decided my free time was better spent walking the gorgeous grounds.
By this time, my calf hurt a lot and all the time. I tried to ignore it since I was at a business meeting, but I was limping from time to time and I had to take Advil to sleep at night because it hurt that much. As I look back on this, I am horrified at how much pain I ignored for so long. I think part of it was that I was so isolated. I never called home because of the expense, I just traded “I miss you” emails with my husband. The clients I was visiting were very nice, but I couldn’t quite let my guard down enough to say, “Excuse me, I am in serious pain and may need medical attention.” So, I pushed through.
I got home the day before Thanksgiving and continued to ignore the pain. I even did some Black Friday shopping. In my defense, the pain would come and go, although I was propping my leg on a pillow in a futile attempt to get comfortable at night.
I think it was Tuesday when I called a varicose vein clinic, thinking that might be my problem. When the receptionist said they could see me in two weeks, I started to cry. When I told her I was in pain, she suggested that I see a doctor. I had a client lunch meeting that day, and had to leave work early to take my daughter to a doctor’s appointment. When we got home, I gave her $20 to order pizza for dinner, and told her I was driving myself to the ER.
I told the triage nurse about my calf pain, and mentioned my recent trip to Australia. My calf was not swollen, red or warm, but they ordered a doppler exam just to be sure. As with most ER visits, there was a lot of waiting, but I was at a quiet neighborhood hospital in a single room, so I relaxed as best as I could and read my book. When I finally got the doppler exam, the diagnosis was clear: DVT.
Yikes! I was so fortunate that it stayed in my calf for the almost three weeks that I ignored it–through walking, running, hiking and another trans-pacific flight. I hate to think of what could have happened. I really am lucky to be alive.
The first stage of the treatment was painful–twice daily injections of a blood thinner. I had my husband do it, which probably was harder on him than it was on me because it did make me cry a bit! The next stage was an annoyance–an oral blood thinner and weekly blood draws to monitor and adjust the dosing. (I learned to get to the clinic 15 minutes before it opened, so I could be among the first few patients to be seen.) I was banned from any real cardio, although I become devoted to daily dog walks.
My doctor didn’t tell me how long I would be sidelined, and that was probably a good thing. If I had been told in November that I wouldn’t be able to run until May, I might have gone into a serious tailspin. As it was, I learned gradually that it was going to take a while for the clot to heal and new veins to grow, and I was able to take it in stride.
So, what lessons did I learn from this experience?
First and foremost, I really do need to take care of myself. I put my work, clients and family first, but that put my health at serious risk.
Second, while some aches can be ignored, true pain demands medical attention. In the world of exercise and fitness, we take pride in pushing through and basking in the delayed-onset muscle soreness a good workout can bring, but we need to recognize when something is wrong and get it checked out.
Third, I now appreciate being healthy enough to run because I realize that I may not always be. I hope I’m never sidelined for 6 months at a time again, but I know that injuries and illness are inevitable.
Fourth, I can survive without running and enjoy other ways of staying fit. During my forced time off from running, I reconnected with my elliptical and made friends with my free weights. I brought more balance to my fitness routine, and I’ve tried to hold on to that.
As I get ready to celebrate another birthday tomorrow, I am glad for the lessons I learned from the birthday I skipped, and the important reminder that we need to take care of ourselves!