That Time It Wasn't My Asthma
Last updated: January 2023
A few years ago, I took a pretty hard fall. On the way down, I managed to sprain and break my ankle, jam my back, and shear a chunk off of one of my arm bones. Thankfully my back ended up being okay, but my wrist needed attention immediately and I had surgery to fix it just a few days after the accident. I only had a hairline fracture in my ankle, so they put me in a walking boot for a few weeks and then had me in physical therapy. After months of fighting with my ankle, one of my doctors finally ordered an MRI, which showed a lot more damage than was originally suspected.
Shortly thereafter, I was back in surgery to fix my ankle. My ankle surgery was pretty extensive and I was not allowed to put any weight on it for 6 weeks. For the first few weeks after surgery, my doctor had me take an aspirin every day. I knew it had something to do with preventing a clot, but I didn’t really understand the significance of it. After 30 days on aspirin, I was allowed to stop taking it.
Experiencing shortness of breath
A few weeks later, I started to get really short of breath. Having a history of asthma, I figured my lungs were just deconditioned from being so sedentary, and that it would improve with time. However, my shortness of breath just kept getting worse and worse. I continued to attribute it to my asthma and not being very active. As the days went by, I could only go short distances before needing to stop and catch my breath. I started noticing other things too. My calf started to hurt on the side I had surgery on. I was having heart palpitations. I still did not make the connection that something was terribly wrong.
The morning before I was admitted to the ICU, I went in to work as usual. My body was shutting down, but I did not know at the time. By the time I was ready to head to the emergency room (ER), I was physically incapable of walking to my car and my boss had to call an ambulance. Everything was a blur when I arrived at the ER. There were many doctors in and out of the room, ordering lots of different tests.
This time it was not my asthma
Eventually, one of the ER doctors came in and delivered my diagnosis. I had two deep vein thromboses (blood clots) in my leg and a submassive pulmonary embolism (PE). I had heard of a PE before, and knew it was a bad thing, but didn’t really understand what it was or that it was life-threatening. Having had surgery on my ankle and limited activity allowed the clots to form.
A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in your lungs. Your heart pumps blood to your lungs through a system of veins and arteries that run along the alveoli (the tiny sacks at the end of your lungs) and are oxygenated before returning to the heart and being pumped back into the body. A pulmonary embolism is when you get a blood clot in these arteries that pull oxygen into the blood from the lungs. When these arteries are clogged with clots, your body is not capable of oxygenating blood anymore. It’s kind of like drowning from the inside out. 1
Shortness of breath caused by asthma is due to the constriction of airways, which can prevent air from getting to these small sacks in your lungs, oxygenating your blood. Shortness of breath from a PE is caused by not being able to oxygenate the blood because the blood itself cannot pick up oxygen because the highway between the blood and the oxygen is at a standstill. 1,2
By the time they found the clots in my lungs, I was in bad shape. I had something called a saddle pulmonary embolism, which means that the artery connecting both lungs was completely clotted through. I was rushed to emergency surgery where they did a procedure to break up the clots and pull them out manually. I spent the next 3 days in the ICU, and 3 more in the hospital.
My reason for sharing this story
Because of my history of asthma, I was extremely dismissive of my shortness of breath. It went on for days before I realized something was really wrong. I am not writing this to scare you, but to bring awareness that not all shortness of breath is asthma. If you are experiencing shortness of breath that does not get better with your rescue medications or by following your asthma action plan, talk to your doctor as soon as possible or go to the ER. I got very lucky that they caught my PE when they did. My doctor later told me that if my boss hadn’t called the ambulance when they did, my story may have had a very different ending. I am so thankful for the doctors and nurses that took care of me, and more importantly, I’m thankful to be alive.
Have you had shortness of breath that you thought was asthma, but it turned out not to be? Share your story.
Has laughter ever triggered your asthma?