It Happened to Me: My Birth Control Gave Me a Pulmonary Embolism

“Isn’t this bizarre?” I asked doctors in the hospital. They shook their heads and informed me that they regularly encountered otherwise healthy young women with blood clots, almost all caused by birth control.
Publish date:
January 12, 2012
healthy, birth control, medical mysteries, blood clots, brushes with death, ER visits

In 2009, my birth control of choice, Yaz, started to pop up frequently in the news. Some people were claiming that Yaz was more likely than other forms of contraception to cause blood clots. The articles, filled with frightening stories of youthful girls suddenly dropping dead on college campuses, certainly managed to get my attention.

So when I went in for my regularly scheduled check-up that year, I asked my doctor about it. Should I be concerned? Did she think I should switch to a different kind of birth control?

“Honestly,” she told me, “the media sort of overblows these things.”

My doctor went on to say that as long as I wasn’t a smoker (I’m not) and don’t have any family history of blood clots (I don’t), then I didn’t have anything to worry about. I was relieved, because it had honestly taken me a while to find a birth control that I liked, and who wants to worry about something pesky like sudden death?

But as it turns out, I was right to be concerned. Less than a year later, that same birth control gave me a pulmonary embolism.

It all started on a long car ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Four of us were headed down to the California Democratic Convention (what a wild life I lead!) and seeing as I’m only 5’4”, I volunteered to sit in the back.

By the time we got to LA, I felt miserable -- but to be fair, I had just ridden for six hours in a cramped car, and plans for the evening included a party for Gavin Newsom and networking with a bunch of political geeks. I figured misery was as good as could be expected.

After a not-so-raging night of seeing Lisa Loeb sing some children’s music and collecting a bunch of business cards, I headed back to the hotel for what turned out to be a horrible night’s sleep. By the time morning came, the right side of my neck was so stiff, I could barely bend it at all.

I would later learn that I was experiencing something called “referred pain,” which is what happens when your body doesn’t know how to process a certain type of pain (like, for instance, in your lungs) so it sends it elsewhere -- often to your shoulder or neck. But at the time, it was easily written off as an unfortunate side-effect of sharing a hotel bed with my co-worker.

I also woke up with a cough, and assumed that my body was simply breaking down under all of the weekend’s stress. Did I mention that I was in LA with my boss, to whom I was planning to hand my resignation after we all returned home? So yeah, you could say that my anxiety levels were just a tiny bit higher than normal.

So I guess it’s not surprising that I simply allowed myself to go on feeling shitty as the weekend progressed. By the time we got back to San Francisco, I still felt bad, but not horrible enough to go to the doctor. It wasn’t until several days later that my right leg began to hurt, and I finally realized that something was wrong.

I knew that there was no reason for me to be having leg pain. I hadn’t done any strenuous exercise. I couldn’t remember injuring it. I Googled “leg pain and cough,” and was presented with a barrage of blood clot links. But I simply couldn’t believe it. I was a healthy 26-year-old woman! Blood clots didn’t happen to people like me! And besides, I had crappy insurance -- couldn’t I just wait for the cough to go away?

After urging from family and friends, I finally did make the trip to the emergency room, where doctors found a DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis), a clot that ran all the way from my ankle to my hip. Realizing it was so extensive, they decided to do a CT-scan as well. Tiny pieces of the clot in my leg had broken off and traveled through up through my veins, now scattered throughout both my lungs.

If I hadn’t gone into the ER that night, doctors told me, I likely would have died before morning.

The whole thing didn’t make sense to me.

“Isn’t this bizarre?” I asked doctors in the hospital. They shook their heads and informed me that they regularly encountered otherwise healthy young women with blood clots, almost all caused by birth control.

I was blown away. I’d been taking birth control for almost a decade, and not once had a doctor ever taken the time to talk to me about the symptoms of blood clots. No one had ever warned me that this had even the slightest real possibility of happening in my life. I felt betrayed.

If left untreated, about 30% of all pulmonary embolisms will end in death. Some factors do increase your risk of getting a clot -- obesity, smoking, use of hormonal birth control -- but in the end, anyone can get one. Even professional athletes!

I was really lucky. Following a one-night stay in the hospital where I learned to inject myself in the stomach with crazy-expensive blood thinners. (When I learned that I had to pay $350 for a box of medicine that I literally needed to save my life, I started to cry. In the middle of Walgreens. It was a low point.) I began a relatively simple road to recovery.

After a week of the injections, I was able to switch to a drug called Warfarin. Warfarin is a blood thinner that has the fun characteristic of also being a common form of rat poison. Note: I don’t mean it’s one of the ingredients in rat poison -- it literally is rat poison. And I had the pleasure of regularly dosing myself with it for six whole months.

My blood was tested almost daily for the first month while we searched for exactly the right amount: If my blood wasn’t thin enough, I was in danger of having another PE. If it got too thin, my internal organs could start to spontaneously bleeding. Super fun!

I’m happy to say that I’m now clot-free and off the rat poison. I’m never allowed to take hormonal birth control again, and one day, pregnancy will present a list of (hopefully manageable) problems. All of this majorly sucks, but I’ll choose condoms over death any day of the week.

My scary brush with death is never far from my mind. Now that I’ve had one PE, my chances of getting another one are much higher, and statistically I’m much more likely to die from the second one.

So what do I do -- and what can you do -- to help keep blood clots at bay?

Well, first of all, take a deep breath. Maybe do some yoga, make a cup of tea, and take some Xanax. I don’t think that everyone should go around worrying that every little cough is a sign of imminent death. It’s not productive. And besides, that kind of stress is just as likely to give you a stroke!

Of course, exercise is definitely important when it comes to preventing clots. Surprise, right? Getting up to stretch and walk around frequently is also key: not only on flights, but also on car trips, or even during a long day at the office. You should never be sitting stationary for more than 4 hours at a time, because that’s when blood clots like to form.

And of course, not taking estrogen-based birth control can also help reduce your chances of getting a clot, but I realize that this isn’t a feasible -- or even necessary -- option for plenty of women. And I am definitely pro-birth-control!

For every girl like me who had a bad experience on one type of contraception, there are many others who will never have a single problem. You have to decide what’s the right fit for you.

The experience made me realize how it important it is to educate myself and others. So please, ladies (and gents!), get to know the symptoms of blood clots! And if you ever have unexplainable leg pain, please don’t wait. Get it checked out immediately, even if that means a trip to urgent care.

I may have felt like a fool when I walked into the ER that night, but by doing so, I managed to save my own life. And you know what? I’ve never regretted it, because despite the occasional political convention, my life is pretty damn awesome.