May 2012. One cold morning out on a run I felt a sudden stabbing pain all over my left chest and shoulder. Stubborn, I ignored it for 3 days, thinking it was the cold air making my breathing raspy. But it got continually worse. The pain was so bad I could hardly breath or walk and when I finally complained to Mum (who works in the health service), she immediately rushed me to emergency, alarm bells going off in her head.
Being in ED paralyzed by pain was really scary, as things like this just didn’t happen to me. I had tubes all over my body and several needles and scans, before the doctor found my lungs were littered with cloudy like spots and confirmed I had pulmonary emboli (PE). I burst into tears. I felt like my life was changing forever, it was terrifying.
Treatment and a Team of ‘Ists’
I was confined to bed rest and finally given some pain meds, which left me constipated and groggy. Mum took 3 weeks off work to care for me – turns out being broke and living on her couch was a blessing in disguise.
Treated as an outpatient, I had to return to the hospital each day for Clexane injections. Now I hate needles. Always have. They terrify me as much as sharks. And Clexane needles are the really fat ones that leave bruises on your body for weeks. I looked like a pin cushion.
Mum being her worried self also pursued to take me to every specialist doctor we could find. I saw every doctor ending in ‘ist’ under the sun! Immunologist, Hematologist, Vascular Physician. I also went to the Pathologist for daily blood tests – even more needles. They all said the same thing – I was a healthy young woman with no family history of clotting and it must have been the pill.
My symptoms presented too late after a return flight from South America to be deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is the most common cause of PE. The only other know risk factor relevant to me was the fact I was on the oral contraceptive pill. I had been on the pill for 7 years and this was the first time I had heard it could cause blood clots.
I later found out that I also have a Protein C deficiency. Protein C is a genetically inherited blood factor which affects clotting. This deficiency, combined with being on the pill was the reason for my bung lungs.
Typical treatment for blood disorders is a 6 month course of blood thinners – the dreaded Warfarin. Your blood must always have a safe level of Warfarin in it, which is between 2 and 3. Any lower, you could clot and any higher you could bleed out. A typical dose of Warfarin is about 7mg/day. I was on 15mg and no matter how hard I tried, could not stabilise my levels. One week it would be 1.4, the next week it would be 4.7!
Each week I had to get a blood test to find out what the Warfarin level was. I made great friends with my Pathology nurse – her name was Lucy Liu (for real) and she was a life saver.
Warfarin is a terrible drug. It made me dizzy and drowsy. Further, the level of Warfarin is affected by diet, meaning no leafy greens or alcohol. I couldn’t run and I couldn’t drink – both my forms of stress release had been taken away. To make matters worse, I have to avoid all forms of hormonal contraception. So enter moody, emotional Zoe who got her period every 2 weeks. What a nightmare!
The Turning Point
To save me from getting down on myself, my two older brothers dared me to race them in a triathlon. This was a hilarious thought because at the time I was severely un-coordinated, could hardly ride a bike and was a terrible swimmer. However my competitive self started to tick and the thought of not only racing, but beating my brothers had me motivated enough to get out of bed and I started training.
I am a very dedicated and committed person, if not slightly crazy, and when I set my sights on something, I become totally consumed by it. This is certainly the case with me and triathlon. In under a year, I went from total novice, to sponsored athlete and Australian representative. The sport of triathlon literally bought me back to life.