Yesterday I learned that Serena Williams, the tennis pro, has been treated for a pulmonary embolus. My husband found out this morning upon reading the newspaper. He wondered why this would happen to a strong, young, athletic woman.

Without delving into the private or specific aspects of her case:

A pulmonary embolism, or PE in doctor-speak, happens when a blood clot enters or forms in the blood supply to the lungs. It’s a serious condition, because when blood vessels in the lungs are compromised, the lung cells can’t deliver fresh oxygen to hemoglobin that would normally pass through in red blood cells. Symptoms sometimes but not always include shortness of breath, pain in the chest that’s sharp in quality, and fatigue. Usually the diagnosis is made by a scan, such as a VQ or a special kind of (spiral) CT.

tennis racket and ball (Wikimedia Commons)

Treatment includes a blood-thinner, usually for a period of months. At first, and depending on the severity of the circumstances, patients may benefit from oxygen treatment through a light face mask or by nasal prongs. In general, doctors monitor patients for a short time in a hospital, to make sure the clot doesn’t get worse and that they don’t need additional oxygen support, and that the anti-coagulant is working.

When patients get blood clots it’s usually because they have a genetic tendency combined with some situation that aggravates that disposition. For example, if someone is born with a deficiency in a protein – of which there are quite a few – that normally dissolves clots, they might feel fine throughout life and be unaware of their hypercoaguable state. But after a big surgery, or if they were immobilized and dehydrated on a long plane ride, that might lead to a clot formation.

Sometimes surgery or inflammation in an extremity, such as a leg, can dispose to clot formation. When a clot forms there, it’s called a deep venous thrombosis (DVT) and that can, especially if untreated, break off and move through the large veins, to the right side of the heart, and then enter the pulmonary artery and smaller vessel or vessels in the lung. In that case it’s a PE.

Pregnancy, in itself and especially in women with underlying clotting disorders, can dispose young women to a DVT or PE. The same is true for estrogen-containing medications including birth control. Smoking, too –

A short personal perspective is that I once cared for a woman who had a PE who was young and attractive. She had been on a long, international flight a few days before she came to the E.R. It took hours for her to get past triage, and I suspect that was because she looked so healthy. It turned out she had a huge clot in her lungs, and a complex clotting disorder.

If a person with a DVT or PE turns out to have a genetic disposition, it doesn’t mean they need life-long treatment with a blood thinner. Depending on the location, severity of the clot and the circumstances, treatment is given for weeks or months. But it can be helpful to know if you have a clotting disorder. Some patients take prophylactic, low-doses of blood thinners when they travel or after immobilizing surgery, like a hip replacement.

Here are some useful websites that provide information on blood clots:

The American Society of Hematology (which confirms that March is DVT Awareness Month)

Medline Plus

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