Baltimore, Maryland, USA
On a hiking trip in the summer of 2015 with friends, Kim Burgess went home with more than just the memories and sore muscles she expected. Kim was unable to finish the hikes she had planned, and ultimately suffered from a blood clot in her leg (deep vein thrombosis, or DVT) and several in her lungs (pulmonary embolism, or PE). Together, DVT and PE are known as venous thromboembolism (VTE).
Kim and her friends had decided to make a road trip out of the journey to Colorado, and took turns driving parts of the 20-hour trip from Maryland to Colorado. Their goal was to hike as much as they could, including the state’s tallest peak, Mount Elbert, which is more than 14,000 feet above sea level.
After the first few days of hiking, Kim noticed a throbbing pain in her left leg and a large knotted vein in the back of her knee that looked red and felt warm to the touch. She came away from a visit to emergency room with a prescription for aspirin and painkillers, and the go-ahead to hike Mount Elbert the next day, since the ultrasound had showed only a superficial clot.
Waking up the next morning, she knew her leg was worse, but the window to hike Mount Elbert was limited, so Kim and her friends set off. As they ascended the mountain, the pain from the clot intensified, but was now blending with the general soreness from a ten-hour hike. At 14,000 feet, most people who live at or below sea level experience some minor altitude sickness, so when she started feeling dizzy and short of breath, Kim blamed it on the elevation.
Kim only felt worse at the end of their recovery day from hiking Mount Elbert. She went to another emergency room, where another ultrasound showed the clot was still superficial, but had now spread all along her leg. The doctor prescribed an anticoagulant, but the clot had gotten so bad that she could not bend her knee without serious pain, forcing her to spend the rest of the trip on crutches and painkillers.
On the drive home to Maryland, Kim was still having trouble breathing despite being back at sea level. She went to her primary care doctor, who noticed that her oxygen saturation was abnormally low. A CT scan showed multiple pulmonary embolisms in Kim’s lungs, and she was immediately readmitted to the hospital for anticoagulant treatment.
The doctors hypothesized that the superficial clot caused by Kim’s preexisting vascular conditions and hormonal birth control usage became a DVT, which led to the pulmonary embolism in her lungs. Kim assumed most of the symptoms she experienced were due to the strain of hiking and preexisting vascular conditions.
During her recovery, Kim reflected on her experience and has become more vigilant about listening to her body. She now feels fortunate that she was able to receive help soon enough to save her life, and wants others to make sure they know the signs and symptoms of thrombosis.
Following her recovery, Kim has made it her goal to hike up the highest point in every state—after three years, Kim has seven high points under her belt and has 43 to go!