When Serena Williams won her second Olymic gold medal this weekend, after winning at Wimbledon in July, this remarkable achievement was achieved only a year after recovery from emergency treatment for a blood clot in her lung (pulmonary embolism, or PE) in 2011. The events leading up to this life threatening complication included an injury to her foot requiring many stitches, and later traveling back from NY to Los Angeles (presumably with a long period of inactivity). She then apparently suffered a pulmonary embolism during the flight. Complications from the treatment that followed required additional surgery.
A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that has blocked an artery to the lungs. These clots usually come from a deep vein in the leg, called a deep venous thrombosis or DVT. DVTs often arise after a period of inactivity and are particularly common after long airplane flights. A clot originating in a deep leg vein will break free occasionally and travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism. In patients with a large PE, there is a high risk of acute heart and respiratory failure.
Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain. Risks for PE include prolonged immobility such as during prolonged periods of inactivity. PE survivors often suffer permanent damage to their heart and lungs. Treatment includes blood thinners and occasionally surgery.
What makes Ms. Williams achievements even more remarkable is her ability to get back in top physical condition after such a life threatening injury, let alone win major tennis tournaments. She truly is a role model, not only as an athlete, but also for the enormous will and determination it must have taken.