The Life Threat of the Jet Set: Pulmonary Embolus

Fabulous is the life of someone whose talents are in demand all over the country, or even the world.  Flying from New York to L.A. one week, and from L.A. to London the next sounds glamorous to many.   However, there is a life threat to this lifestyle.


It led Superwoman Serena Williams to emergency surgery in February of 2011 and in January of 2018 following the birth of her child.  It caused the untimely death of the beloved Heavy D on November of the same year.  During the same month two years later, it struck NeNe Leakes.


It is the life threat of the Jet Set, pulmonary embolus.


What are pulmonary emboli (PE’s)? 

The term literally means “lung clots.”  They are blood clots that form in deep veins of the calves and thighs where they are called Deep Venous Thrombi (DVT’s).  The affected calf or thigh may be painful, red, and swollen when this happens.  These DVT’s then break off and travel (embolize) in the circulatory system through the heart to the arteries of lungs where they are called Pulmonary Emboli.  These clots can clog the artery, preventing the normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that occurs in the blood, which is how our bodies get oxygen.  Lack of blood flow to the lungs can also cause the death of that lung tissue. Once in the lungs they cause shortness of breath, chest pain, lightheadedness, anxiety, coughing productive of pink frothy or bloody mucus, collapse or even sudden death.   The day after giving birth, Serena told Vogue magazine she had the sudden onset of shortness of breath.  Sometimes the symptoms can be more subtle or sneaky, and the person just feels, “tired,” much of the time.


Risk factors for PE’s include pregnancy, major leg injuries, cancer, obesity, birth control pills (especially smoking while on birth control pills), wearing casts and walking boots, long airline flights and road trips, extended bed rest, and a history of DVT or PE.


So we can see these risk factors at work when recalling Heavy D’s flight from London to Los Angeles, NeNe’s frequent flights, and the perfect storm that formed as Serena Williams underwent two leg surgeries, wore a cast the a walking boot, and flew from New York to L.A.   We can also see how her pregnancy caused several small blood clots to settle in her lungs seven years later!


What is the treatment for Pulmonary Emboli?

Blood thinners such as Heparin, Lovenox and Coumadin will dissolve the clot over a matter of months. If the clot is large and immediately life threatening, clot busters called thrombolytics are used, or surgery is done to remove the clot.


How do you prevent Pulmonary Emboli?

When on flights, wear compression socks or stockings.  Get up to walk the cabin once an hour.  Do not cross your legs for prolonged periods.  Stop every 2 hours or so during road trips to walk and stretch your legs.  Do not smoke while taking birth control pills.   Discuss clot prevention strategies with your doctor before and after surgery, and  maintain physical activity as much as you can while in recovery.


Enjoy being part of the Jet Set!  Be safe!    -K.B. Rapp, M.D.

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