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Pulmonary Embolism: Mental and Emotional Recovery

It’s now been just over three months since I was released from the hospital after my pulmonary embolism/blood clot (see previous two blogs). Once I started to improve, I felt like my improvements came pretty quickly so I thought it was going to be all smooth sailing as I returned to the healthy and active lifestyle that I know and love. For the most part, daily life has improved to the point where I can go through longer stretches each day where I no longer really think about it. But then at other times it hits me pretty hard and I’ll feel more tired and also get caught up in the emotional aspect of what I’ve been through.

I feel very fortunate to have talked to a few people who have gone through PE recovery as well, and they’ve been able to help me put things in perspective and sort through the mental aspect of my recovery. It wasn’t until one friend told me that as a ‘survivor of a PE’, it’s perfectly normal, and helpful, to go through all sorts of emotions during recovery. When she said ‘survivor’, that really hit me hard, as I never really thought about the fact that I fit that description. I knew that I had survived a very serious ordeal, and that some don’t. I also knew that I was lucky to have gotten through it, but the word survivor seemed a little darker a place than I had let my mind go.

I had a Zoom call recently with my friend. She is two-years past her pulmonary embolism, and is still dealing with her own recovery. We chatted for quite a while, in a very honest conversation about what we’d both been through. She shared some of the things she’d experienced, and what she found helpful. Tears were shed between us during this conversation and it really helped me better understand what I’d been through, where I currently am, and some of the things I may have yet to deal with…again, from both a physical and mental aspect.

Something my friend told me that might be helpful is to keep an honest journal of how I’m feeling from a physical and mental perspective, for only me to see, then read it over, and then destroy my notes. I didn’t really think that this was something that I could see myself doing. My normal course of action when dealing with my emotions would typically be to go for a long run or hard run, and then the world is a better place after. Obviously, this isn’t something I can, or should, do at this point…and may not get to the root of my problems. I have recently written down my honest feelings in this manner, and kept them largely to myself before deleting them. Most of these thoughts I’ve shared with Sara, and some of these thoughts I’ve included in this blog. However, the exercise of writing down the anger, sadness, vulnerability, and all other emotions, I’ve found to be quite therapeutic. A lot of these emotions I’ve felt are very similar to what I was feeling when my oldest sister died in an accident a few years ago. I expect that my mental recovery will take as long or longer to heal than my physical recovery.

My basic vital signs have continued to improve. My morning resting heart rate upon waking up is now down to within 10 beats per minute of what it was before my PE. And, happily my O2 reading is back to close to normal for me within 1-3% most days, which has been a pleasant surprise. My breathing at rest has continued to improve too. Even with all of these improvements, I still had a bit of a scare recently that required a return visit to the ER due to increased chest pain in my right lung. After a few tests, I was assured that I was fine. I still have pain or pressure in my right lung some days. It actually feels better when exercising, so hoping that it will continue to improve as I rehab it further.

Physically, I’ve gotten back to going for a short and easy run most days. The thing that I’ve found the strangest is not just that I’m not in as good of shape as I normally am, but just that it feels like I’m not really making fitness improvements with the runs I’m doing. I know that I can go for a very slow and easy jog for 30-45mins and feel quite comfortable usually while I’m out there, but I’m still shocked by how much slower (60-90sec slower per km) I am running than normal and that’s very hard to get my head around. I keep a close eye on my heart rate these days while running and don’t let it get above a certain percent, while ignoring pace/speed, to make sure I’m not pushing too hard. Even after an easy run, it can take a few days to recover sometimes.

I often feel that I can’t get enough oxygen to my muscles. My muscle memory for the most part in my legs helps me move reasonably comfortably at slow paces on the flats, but as soon as I hit an uphill, I’m toast! The start of runs are also quite challenging for the first 10-15 minutes as I’m breathing much heavier at a much slower pace than the rest of the run. I’m not entirely sure why this is. I’m assuming that it’s from the infarction in my right lung, which is just dead tissue and will never fully heal to it’s original elastic state. I’m guessing that it takes a little longer for my lung to feel comfortable with breathing more deeply. Through doing this while continuing to run, hopefully the remaining healthy percentage of my lung will work more efficiently. That is why doctors recommend cardio activities following pulmonary embolisms.

Again, with running, there are some good days and some bad days. On a recent run, I was shocked at how much slower I had to go during a short run than what I’ve been going recently. I was running on a short loop that I run almost daily and was surprised that on one small hill I had to stop and walk up the hill. After many good days recently I couldn’t believe that this was happening and it felt like a step backwards. I did this run in the rain, and it hadn’t occurred to me until after I’d finished that the dampness and humidity was likely the reason why I was struggling on this run. At least after realizing this, I felt a little more comforted that it was just a new experience, and hopefully would improve again soon.

In addition to dealing with the stress of my pulmonary embolism recovery, COVID has been very front and centre on my mind recently as the risk of getting Covid with a damaged lung is pretty scary. I feel very fortunate though to have just received my first Pfizer vaccine this weekend, so am comforted knowing that I will be more protected soon.

The last few days have been encouraging and I’m starting to feel a little better again. I’m looking forward to continuing to get stronger, and determined be able to get out for some longer runs again soon in the coming weeks and months.

Thank you again to everyone who has reached out to check in on my health. It really means a lot.

Also, I would like to take this opportunity to let anyone who is reading this know that if they ever find themselves having dealt with a pulmonary embolism or blood clot and need to discuss with someone, please feel free to reach out to me. I’ve learned that support is very important with this. I know that the support I’ve received from those who have gone through the same thing has been invaluable, and I would like to pass on what I’ve learned and experienced to others.


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