Almost a year ago I was near death and never even suspected it. The symptoms were somewhat silent. No true warning signs flashed that I urgently needed to get to a doctor. No alarms. But unknown to me was a ticking time bomb in my body, more specifically my leg, which could have gone off and killed me and I was none the wiser.
I’ve worked out in gyms since August 1991. I’ve tried to keep in shape and eat healthy ever since, but genetics also mixes its own cards into the deck, and these can fall at any time without warning.
Around February 2016, I leaned down to pick up a small box in the living room. The box didn’t weigh any more than a pound. Perhaps it was simply the angle in which I turned and leaned, but right to the inside of my left knee there was an audible popping sound, followed by a slight bit of pain. I really didn’t think anything about it until the next morning.
When I awakened the next day, a large swollen knot had formed behind my knee. It was hot to the touch and walking up or down stairs was painful. The pain was too much to go to the gym and use the treadmill, so I propped my leg and put an icepack behind my knee. Like a lot of folks, I self-diagnosed the situation by looking up the symptoms on the Internet. It’s cheaper than going to a doctor, right? Maybe in price, but the true cost is in thinking you’re suffering from one thing, when in actuality, it’s something far, far worse. From what I was reading and the symptoms I had, I discovered I had a Baker’s Cyst (which, by the way was TRUE), so I followed what different medical sites advised to relieve the pain—an ice pack and elevate the leg.
Needless to say, it by no means was a fix or a cure, but like other men in my family, one has to be near death to go to the doctor or a hospital, so stubbornly I chose to wait it out, hoping the cyst dissolved over time. Sadly, the entire time I kept my leg elevated and was avoiding the gym due to pain, my situation was only getting more severe, only I didn’t know.
After a week, the cyst had faded but my calf was twice the size of my right one. Reading more about the Baker’s cysts, I found that they can burst and the fluid descends into the calf. I held no doubt that must have been what had happened, but now walking was unbearable. Going to the gym to work my upper body wasn’t easy, though I tried, but without using the treadmill and working my legs, I was gaining a lot of weight.
During this time, my writing productivity had increased substantially. Of course, since there wasn’t anything else I could do while sitting most of the day, I did what I love most and wrote. I had finished Lady Squire at the end of December 2015. While forced to sit for long hours, I wrote the first three volumes of Forrest Wollinsky. Those books flowed out of me, unlike any other books I had written previously. After those, I decided to work on my Mars novel—a book I had, off and on, worked on for more than fifteen years. On June 1st, The Deimos Virus was finally completed.
After I finished that novel, I started Raven. Around late June, my wife scheduled all of us physicals at the hospital’s clinic. Since we were new to Marietta, Ohio, we needed a family doctor. My appointment came after one of the most stressful weekends of my life. They took my blood pressure and it was higher than it’s ever been. My BP is usually great, 120/65 or thereabouts. On this day, 150/90.
So the doctor asked a lot of questions and I revealed part of the reason for the stress. Then I explained I had gained quite a bit of weight since I had hurt my knee and told her about the Baker’s Cyst. She looked at my calf, which had remained slightly swollen ever since the cyst faded. I also had a lot of sores on my leg. She asked about those, and I told her I had them off and on for some time, but they had gotten worse after the cyst.
The next thing she did was schedule me for an ultrasound in my calf and then told me after I did that, I needed to go to another office and have my blood drawn for genetic testing. I was confused but did as she requested.
The ultrasound revealed that I had a DVT in my left calf and it was quite severe. The one doctor was frantic and wanted me to rush to the ER immediately. I didn’t rush, but I went. I was then scheduled to see a hematologist and a vascular surgeon the next week. In the meantime, they put me on Xarelto to thin my blood. A few days later I got my blood work back and found out that I had Leiden Factor V, which is a genetic clotting disorder. Basically, it means that my blood clots too easily and puts me at risk for DVTs and circulatory problems. Also with Factor V, staying sedentary for long periods of time was the worst thing I could do because blood pools in the veins, making the problem worse. Once the threat of the blood clot was past, all four doctors told me the same thing: “Exercise. Don’t stay sedentary. Walk (a lot). Keep active.”
My estranged father had passed away over a year ago, so I never knew what medications he was taking. I called my oldest brother and asked if he knew. He told me that our father had been on blood thinners for years, so the Factor V was hereditary.
I remained on Xarelto for about three months and the hematologist insisted I have additional blood tests done. If the results came back that I was only carrying one allele for the Factor V, there was a good chance I could stop taking the Xarelto. However, if I were positive for both, I’d be on the medication for life. Luckily, I only had the one allele, and a few weeks later, he told me I didn’t need to stay on the Xarelto.
The lessons I’ve learned from this:
1. Have an annual physical
2. Eat healthy
3. Exercise daily (I was told had I not been working out for over 20 years, the Factor V could have hit me hard years earlier)
4. Find out what diseases your parents/grandparents have/had
5. Self-diagnosis is NOT effective and can give you false confidence that you’re okay when you’re not
6. Take breaks from writing. Stand every fifteen to thirty minutes. If you have stairs, walk up and down them several times during writing breaks. Keep the heart pumping.
Those of us who write extensive periods of time are sedentary, and this is far more dangerous than we think. Since my ordeal, I have cleaned up my diet and go to the gym five days a week. At least three days a week I go to the gym twice per day. I’ve lost the weight, my BP has returned to normal, and I feel great.