It all started with leg pain. My first thought was that it was a pulled muscle, that I hyperextended my leg the day before. But to be honest, at the time, I had much bigger issues happening. My mother-in-law was in the hospital in Trinidad, and my wife had left to go and see her.
Over the course of a few days, the pain got worse, but so did life’s circumstances. My mother-in-law passed away and I was suddenly making plans to fly to Trinidad for her funeral. But the pain in my leg had become so bad, the mere idea of traveling was daunting. So I did what anyone would do – I made a doctor's appointment.
The doctor’s diagnosis was a pulled hamstring. He prescribed medication and instructions for getting better. I followed my doctor's orders and despite the pain, two days later, I was on a plane bound for Trinidad.
I arrived ready to celebrate my mother-in-law’s life, but I never got the chance. While driving to the family home, I passed out in the car, awoke and suddenly could not breathe.
I was rushed to Medical Associates in St Joseph, Trinidad, where it was discovered that I had a large saddle pulmonary embolism (Saddle PE), which is a large and potentially deadly blood clot that straddles the pulmonary trunk and can essentially block both the arteries to the left and right lung.
Turns out my original leg pain was likely not a pulled hamstring. It was most likely deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – a blood clot that develops in a deep vein (usually in the leg) and can be caused by anything that prevents your blood from circulating.
DVT was once nicknamed the ‘Economy Class Syndrome’ after a large number of passengers began collapsing after hours spent in confined tight seats on long-haul flights.
I spent a week in the hospital and was administered blood thinners to help clear my blood clot. It was six weeks before thoughts of going home was an option. The original plan was to take cruise ships back to the US, but the plan fell through.
I was going to have to take a plane home.
I was a nervous wreck and in tears the day before my flight. A family friend, who works as a travel agent, booked our flights home and put me in wheelchair service. That helped because I couldn't walk for long distances and Miami International Airport is huge. The wheelchair service expedited me through customs, immigration and baggage stops.
The whole plane ride was spent thinking every pain or strange feeling was the result of me having another embolism. It was difficult and scary. My doctors told me to walk around and stretch every half hour, drink only water and take my medication.
But for me, the worst part was the entire diagnosis meant my wife and I would have to miss our honeymoon to Bali and Hong Kong that November. And with my health in such a precarious spot, we had no way of knowing when we could reschedule.
Luckily, we had trip insurance which allowed us to recover almost all of our costs. There are plenty of trip insurance companies that give you a myriad of options for insurance and coverage. Thankfully, our trip insurance specifically covered illness that prevents travel.
Related article: Do I need travel insurance?
After months of recovery, doctor’s visits and new medications, our honeymoon was back on. We changed our destinations and opted to go to Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong.
I was instantly excited and terrified all at once. Traveling after having such a life-altering event is daunting. We’re still are not entirely sure what caused my embolism. I was scared of so many things – going so far away from home, not having enough stamina to enjoy the trip and my new medication regimen.
But what I was most afraid of was suffering another embolism or DVT while being even further away from home. However, as my new doctor pointed out, blood clots can happen to anyone. So instead of giving in to my fear, I decided to develop a plan.
Here are a few tips to help prevent developing blood clots while traveling:
Walk and move: On all my flights from Indianapolis to Singapore, I would walk around once every 30 minutes. Try to time your walks to avoid the food or drink service. On top of walking, moving your feet and arms help keep your blood flowing. I trace the alphabet in the air with my toes, pump my feet up and down and do calf raises in my seat.
Listen to your body: If you need to rest, do it. When you are ready, push yourself to see and experience everything. Listening to my body keeps me healthy and happy.
Hydrate: My goal was to drink a cup of water for every 15 minutes I spent on a plane. Our collapsible water bottle became my best asset. Yes, that means using the restroom a lot, but that is the point! If you are wary of germs and airplane bathrooms, bring disinfecting wipes.
Keep calm: Stress is taxing on the body and ultimately makes any situation worse. My favorite way to keep calm on flights is to do trivia. I love and highly suggest Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel Quiz Book. This fun mix of trivia kept me calm and collected during my very rocky flight from Vietnam to Hong Kong.
Take your medicine: If you have medicine that you take on a regular basis, a long flight is not the time to skip it. Make sure to pack everything you need in your carry-on and have easy access to it. Also, set a reminder on your phone and take the medicine as close to on time as you can, taking time zones into account.
Travel safety net: I will never travel without travel insurance again. There are great options out there, so do your research and find the right option for you and your family. I also look into the name and location of the nearest hospital, no matter where I am staying in the world. Knowing this information instantly makes me feel more prepared.
This six-part plan helped me to soak up my first visit to Asia without the worry of potential health problems. We took our time, ate amazing food and had a blast! This trip reignited my travel itch and we are already making plans for Costa Rica in a few months and Thailand next fall.
Desireé Brandon-Gouveia is a Program Educator & Camp Coordinator at the Indianapolis Zoo. She's an avid traveler and has visited Austria, Germany, Belize and Honduras.