Susan's valuable lesson: 'Listen to your body'
To family and friends, Susan Thanasides seemed the picture of health.
In fact, her health habits were downright impressive. Susan, a UnitedHealthcare member from New Jersey, had been a runner since she was a teen. At age 40, she even ran the New York City Marathon.
She ate a healthy diet and got a solid eight to nine hours of sleep a night. Smoking? No way! This fit, wellness-minded woman believed in treating her body right.
So, it was quite a shock when doctors diagnosed Susan with a serious medical condition one that could have taken her life.
Yet, Susan would emerge a passionate survivor. And, she raves about the support she received from UnitedHealthcare. For one, she never imagined she'd be getting daily phone calls throughout her recovery to see how she was doing. And, that unwavering support helped her get through the toughest health crisis of her life.
'It's just a pulled muscle'
Susan's ordeal began in October 2010, when she was 48. One day, she felt a pain in her side. Thinking she'd just pulled a muscle exercising, she resisted suggestions to see a doctor.
But, the pain in her side kept getting worse. And, the chorus of concern from friends and loved ones kept getting louder: "You have to go to the doctor now."
An initial X-ray showed a little fluid in Susan's lungs. But, the cause wasn't clear. Susan was scheduled to have more tests the next day at an imaging center a few towns away. And, the pain didn't ease up. She even spent the night trying to sleep upright in a kitchen chair because she couldn't lie down at all.
At the imaging center, the misery continued. In fact, when Susan had to lie flat for a CT scan, her body shook with pain and she screamed in agony. And, the test soon revealed why: Two blood clots were lodged in one of her lungs, which had partly collapsed. The condition called a pulmonary embolism can be fatal without prompt treatment.
Before she knew it, Susan was in an ambulance being whisked away to the hospital. It was surreal, she says. "Sirens are on and I'm just shocked because I thought I had only pulled a muscle."
In the hospital, Susan received IV medicines to dissolve the clots. And, she did breathing therapies to help get her lungs working again.
Once home from the hospital, Susan relied on a caring, friendly resource: calls from UnitedHealthcare's health care experts.
"Every day, someone called me to ask: 'How are you? Do you have any questions or concerns? Do you want to talk? We're here,'" she says.
They answered questions about her recovery and helped put her mind at ease that she was doing all she could to get well. "It was awesome," she says. "That resource was invaluable to me."
And, Susan also learned more about pulmonary embolism. Most blood clots such as hers start out in a deep vein in a leg. They break loose and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs. They often form during long periods of inactivity or after a surgery or trauma.
But, Susan had none of these risk factors or any of the warning signs. For example, swelling, pain or tenderness in a leg are common early symptoms and the skin over the affected area might feel warm to the touch. If the clot reaches the lungs, it can cause shortness of breath, chest pain or coughing. But, it's also possible not to have any symptoms.
In Susan's case, she felt nothing unusual until the clots reached her lung. And, for months, the cause remained a mystery.
An unexpected answer
During her six-month recovery period, Susan took a blood-thinning medication. Then, she stopped so that doctors could test whether long-term treatment was necessary. That's a typical approach following a pulmonary embolism.
Within a few weeks of stopping blood thinners, Susan noticed a pain in the back of her leg. This time, she immediately told her doctor and that turned out to be a smart move. Another blood clot had formed and traveled to her lung, landing her back in the hospital.
How could this happen again? she thought.
Blood tests provided an answer. Susan had developed lupus anticoagulant syndrome. This disorder makes the blood especially prone to clotting. It wasn't good news, but it was a relief to find out it wasn't anything she had done, she says. "It just happened."
And, looking back, Susan believes that her overall fitness may have helped her get through the crisis. A less healthy person might not have been so lucky, her doctor told her.
In fact, Susan says she's fortunate she survived. And, she praises the caring professionals from UnitedHealthcare for helping her through such a frightening time, including when she had questions about her new medication routine.
Those calls showed genuine concern, she says. "I was doted upon. It was just a great feeling."
Back on track
Today, Susan is healthy and back to living her life including running and taking blood thinners to help prevent blood clots.
And, there's something she'd like to share with others particularly those who might be tempted to ignore aches and pains in the hopes they'll go away.
"Listen to your body," she says. "Get it checked or at least really pay attention."
Susan continues to value her health. She remembers her first run after her illness. "I just felt very much alive," she says. "Like, Nothing's going to keep me down now."