North Carolina, USA
After more than 30 years as a paramedic in Durham, North Carolina, USA, Kevin Wilson woke up on a January morning in 2010 and knew that this time, he was going to be the patient.
“I woke up and immediately felt like my chest had imploded,” Kevin said. “I had tremendous pain in my chest. I looked at my wife and said, ‘I’m in trouble.’”
Kevin called an ambulance and within minutes, his paramedic protégés were working to save his life.
“I was watching these people that I had trained or at least given continued medical education to for years,” said Kevin, the Education Coordinator for Durham County Emergency Medical Services at the time. “I just told them to do what I taught them to do … My thought was if they mess up, then they need to mess up on me because I’m responsible for their education.”
Kevin’s fellow medics quickly escorted him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a saddle pulmonary embolism (PE), a large blood clot that blocks the main pulmonary artery from the heart at the location where it splits into two main arteries leading to the lungs.
“It is scary when you’re the one in the ambulance and you’re thinking: I’m probably not going to survive this event,” he recalls. “When they said it was a saddle embolus, I knew it was an imminent life threat.”
Kevin was experiencing unbearable pain, which he described as feeling like his chest was on fire and constantly blowing up. “I take very little medicine, but when they said they were going to give me some narcotics, I told them to open up the pharmacy vault. Then they really knew it was serious.”
After the diagnosis at the hospital, doctors were still worried he may not survive even with the best medical interventions. Although Kevin was on medication to dissolve the clot, doctors were afraid the blockage could shift at any moment and send him over the edge.
Hours later, when his wife attempted to leave the hospital room to bring him some food, the nurses turned her back for fear that Kevin might not be alive when she returned.
“I was 99 percent sure that I wasn’t coming out of the hospital,” Kevin said. “The term everyone kept using was ‘massive.’ Everyone told us that they’ve never seen someone survive an embolus this big.”
Defying expectations, Kevin did survive with minimal aftereffects. After four days of bed rest and five total days in the hospital, Kevin was released and prescribed an anticoagulant to prevent further blood clots.
After a year with no further complications, doctors allowed Kevin to discontinue his prescription. A few months later he developed another PE, which was not as serious, but still potentially life-threatening.
Following another visit to the hospital and treatment, doctors prescribed an oral anticoagulant that Kevin will need to take for the remainder of his life. As Kevin described it, this is a minor concession for a third chance at life.
Looking back, Kevin doesn’t remember experiencing any of the normal early symptoms associated with a PE. He didn’t experience any calf pain or leg swelling that normally accompanies a deep vein thrombosis, the most common precursor.
However, Kevin does recognize that he had a few risk factors that most likely led to the blood clot, despite precautions. Kevin was flying frequently in the weeks leading up to his clot, and he also had surgery in that time period—two important risk factors for developing blood clots. He also has a family history of stroke.
Today, Kevin is a recently retired grandfather of three, but he is still active in the medical community. He looks back on this event as an eye-opening experience in how he thinks about patient care.
“It was so surreal because I am usually the person helping the patient,” Kevin shared. “But in this case, I was the patient laying there, needing them to do all the right things to save my life.”
Kevin knows he was fortunate to survive his thrombosis events, crediting the swift and tremendous medical care he received. Although he didn’t experience the classic early symptoms of a venous thromboembolism (VTE), Kevin wants to encourage others to know the signs and symptoms of VTE and consult their doctor if something is wrong. If caught early, they can avoid the need for an ambulance and life-saving assistance from someone like Kevin.