When a young woman developed deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on a flight home from London last year, she was taken to hospital, not knowing if she would survive.
Mary, 20, had a pulmonary embolism (PE), which developed from a blood clot that forms in the veins of the leg.
An embolism is a blockage in one of the body’s pulmonary arteries in the lungs, and in most case, occurs when the clot travels up from the legs. As the clot blocks blood flow to the lungs, it leads to oxygen loss to vital organs, including the brain.
Mary’s last memory of her holiday was having dinner with friends.
The University of Wollongong student was in the UK on a writing course, and spent a lot of the time taking in the sights by foot.
”I was wearing heeled boots and did quite a lot of walking,” she said. “I thought that was why my legs were aching and my right ankle and foot was swollen.”.
Mary boarded her flight home. In Sydney, her mother Danijela was on the way to pick up her daughter from the airport. She got a phone call from one of the cabin crew, telling her that her daughter was feeling sick upon landing, and paramedics were called.
Mary went into cardiac arrest and was rushed to St George Hospital. She suffered from another cardiac arrest in the ambulance, and another four more in hospital. She was in a coma and on life support for four days. She was treated with blood thinners and stayed in hospital recovering for a month.
Tests revealed Mary had common changes in a gene that control protein – Factor V. People with the gene have an increased risk of blood clots.
The gene mutation occurs in about one in every 25 Australians but most do not develop into clots. Mary however, had other risk factors at play – she was taking a high estrogen contraceptive pill and had been on two long-haul flights.
The conditions she was struck down with are collectively referred to as venous thromboembolism. About 2000 Australians die from it each year.
Director of Haematology at St George Hospital, Professor Beng Chong, who studies bleeding diseases and clotting, played a vital role in saving Mary’s life.
His clinical studies, supported by the St George and Sutherland Medical Research Foundation, have involved the development of drugs to improve the treatment and prevention of clotting disorders.
In 2017 Professor Chong also received one of the inaugural Microbiome Research Centre grants to study the link between gut bacteria and immune bleeding and clotting diseases. The foundation has funded two of Professor’s research programs.
His team is mainly examining clot structures to discover new insights about clot formation.
“Mary was very lucky to survive the massive condition she had,” Professor Chong said. “But millions of people fly every day, and only a small number get either DVT or PE.
“We do see a significant number of patients with clotting who have been admitted to hospital. They are at higher risk, especially because they have been lying there after illness or surgery, when blood isn’t flowing.”
Professor Chong’s latest research involves working with cardiologists to examine the mechanisms of a clot following a heart attack or stroke – the most common cause of death. By extracting the clot and analysing its cell make-up, researchers hope to develop more treatments.
“There is a lack of public awareness about how serious blood clotting disease is,” Professor Chong said. “People die from it, but the more important message is that it’s easily preventable.”