San Diego, California, United States
It was the last day of a road trip vacation to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jeffree Itrich woke up early to pack the car for the drive home to San Diego. When she sat up in bed and inhaled, a sharp pain shot through the front of her chest – a pain so intense that she couldn’t get a full breath.
“I began taking shallow breaths – the only way I could inhale,” Jeffree says. “I didn’t tell my husband what was happening; we packed the car quickly and got on the road.”
Throughout the 13-hour trip Jeffree’s husband often asked if she wanted to stop for lunch or snacks. She shook her head ‘no’. She just wanted to get home. Relying on shallow breathing was taking its toll; she was exhausted and growing more tired by the hour. Several times her husband commented that she didn’t look so good and asked if she was okay.
“I wasn’t,” she recalls. “But I also knew that we were far from standard healthcare facilities. Better to keep going.”
Upon arriving home, Jeffree went straight to bed. She’d unpack and deal with laundry in the morning. “That’s not like you. Are you sure you’re alright?” her husband had asked. She responded that she was simply tired. The only household member who figured out that something was terribly wrong was her orange tabby cat. He snuggled next to Jeffree’s chest, keeping her warm, nursing her. It was a habit he began exhibiting as a kitten. Whoever was sick or injured became the object of his nursing skills.
The next morning, when she sat up in bed, Jeffree doubled over in pain.
“Not only did it still feel like a knife was going through my chest but now it felt like a knife going through my back as well, the two tips meeting somewhere deep in my chest,” she recalls. “I told my husband that I didn’t feel well and that he should take me to the ER. When he asked why, and I told him, he dressed at lightning speed and we were out the door in minutes.”
The ER ran many tests. When nothing provided any answers to the pain and Jeffree’s inability to breathe deeply, the attending physician ordered a CT scan; it revealed a massive pulmonary embolism stuck at the juncture where the pulmonary artery meets the lung. The ER quickly put her on a heparin drip, a heart monitor, and prepared to send her to a step-down unit upstairs. The attending physician told her that he would have preferred the ICU but there were no empty beds, so he would arrange for ICU-like care in the step-down unit.
The doctor who would be monitoring Jeffree on the floor stopped by. “It’s a good thing you came in when you did, because if you’d stayed home, your husband would have awakened to a deceased wife in the morning,” he said.
The embolism was one of the largest he’d ever seen. The doctor told Jeffree that most people didn’t survive embolisms that big, adding that she was at very high risk for death over the coming days.
For the next five days, the doctors kept Jeffree well sedated, infused with blood thinners and monitored with all sorts of devices. On the fifth day, the team determined that she could go home, adding that she wasn’t out of the woods yet. The next few weeks and months would be critical for Jeffree. Her fortune could reverse at any time.
When she visited the pulmonologist in the clinic a few days later, he showed her where the clot (a DVT) originated in her thigh, probably from sitting too long in the car en route to Albuquerque, and how it traveled up through her venous system through her heart and into the pulmonary artery. It began manifesting itself that last day of the drive home.
“I gazed at the poster of the human body showing the venous system,” she recalls. “I asked the doctor, ‘If something that big went through my heart, why didn’t I have a heart attack and die on the trip home?’”
His answer caught her off guard. “That’s a question you’re going to have to ask God and it’s my job to make sure you don’t get to ask it anytime soon.”
Over the next few months Jeffree rehabilitated, returning to work one day a week, then two, then three, until she was able to work full time. At four or so months, a VQ scan showed that the clot had nearly dissipated. It also illustrated that the functioning area of her lung was about 60% of her uninjured lung.
“There was a time when I thought I would be debilitated for life,” she says. “And while I definitely had my challenges, eventually I was able to breathe, function, and exercise like I had before. I don’t always have the stamina I had prior the PE but that doesn’t bother me. I’m alive.”