Medical Research saved Mary’s life

Medical Research saved Mary’s life

At just 20-years-old, Mary suffered a life-threatening deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and subsequent pulmonary embolism (PE).

A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms in the veins of the leg. A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in your lungs. In most cases, pulmonary embolism (PE) is caused by blood clots that travel to the lungs from the legs (DVT). Because the clots block blood flow to the lungs, they prevent the blood from taking up oxygen and carrying it to all vital organs including the brain. PE is a serious condition requiring urgent treatment.

Mary is studying creative writing at the University of Wollongong and travelled to England last July to undertake a short writing course. Her trip was only four weeks long and she spent the second weekend walking around London, discovering the sights. Mary commented, “I was wearing heeled boots and did quite a lot of walking. I thought that was why my legs were aching and my right ankle and foot was swollen.”

Mary’s last recollection of her trip was having dinner with her fellow students at the University of East Anglia on the Friday evening.

Fast forward to the morning of Sunday 27 July 2017. Mary’s Etihad flight was due to land in Sydney Airport at 6.40am. Danijela was driving to the airport from Wollongong to collect Mary while her younger daughter, Veronica, stayed at home with their grandmother. Danijela received a phone call from one of the Etihad cabin crew advising her that Mary was feeling unwell and that paramedics had been called.

At 7.10 am, Mary went into cardiac arrest and, following airport protocol, the Sydney Airport firefighters were called to administer CPR while waiting for paramedics to arrive. Danijela arrived at the airport to receive this terrible news, but she could not see her daughter as Mary was rushed to St George Hospital by ambulance.

Mary suffered a second cardiac arrest in the ambulance, and Danijela was driven by the Federal Police to St George Hospital to be with her daughter.

Mary has no memory of these events but was told that once admitted to St George Hospital she suffered four more cardiac arrests and was in a coma, on life support, for four days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Mary remembers waking up from the coma, “It felt like the beginning of a new life – it was surreal.”

Danijela is visibly moved as she recounts her side of the story. She has nothing but the highest praise for the doctors and nurses in Emergency and ICU, “They were all so incredible, so professional but also so caring and supportive. I can’t thank them enough.”

“I couldn’t believe what was happening to my daughter,” added Danijela, “She has always been so healthy, and I can’t tell you how scared I was seeing her with all those tubes and wires.” Danijela has had more than her share of challenges. As a young Macedonian bride, she lost her husband to lung cancer a little over nine years ago and has brought up her two daughters independently.

During her stay at St George Hospital, Mary was managed by a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. Her respiratory physician was Dr V Yozghatlian. Another specialist who was brought into the team was Professor Beng H Chong, a Haematologist and renowned world leader in research into clotting disorders such as DVT and PE.

Mary was treated with drugs to dissolve the clots as well as anti-coagulants (blood thinners) to prevent further clotting. She stayed in hospital for a month to ensure her body fully recovered from the trauma.

The obvious question is why did this happen to a “healthy” 20-year-old woman? Prof Chong said there were several reasons. Tests revealed that Mary has Factor V Leiden, a fairly common change in a gene that controls a protein called Factor V.

Factor V is a protein involved in blood clotting and the Factor V Leiden gene change is linked to an increased risk of blood clots. This gene mutation occurs in about 1 in every 25 Australians and most people do not develop blood clots. However, Mary had a few additional risk factors; she was taking a high estrogen contraceptive pill and had just experienced two long-haul flights.

Prof Chong is Director of Haematology, St George Hospital and a Conjoint Professor with the St George and Sutherland Clinical School, UNSW. He is a clinical research scientist and is highly respected for his expertise in the field of clotting and bleeding diseases. Prof Chong has a high-impact research history spanning basic science through to clinical research and SSMRF supported his work on the development of novel drugs to improve both the treatment and prevention of clotting disorders.

Consistent with this research, his team is currently examining the structure of clots to get important new insights of blood clot formation aiming to develop more effective treatments for DVT and PE. Just last year Prof Chong was awarded one of the inaugural Microbiome Research Centre (MRC) Grants to study the link between gut bacteria and immune bleeding and clotting diseases.

Professor Chong says, “Mary was very lucky to survive the massive PE she had. In Mary’s case, every health caregiver in the hospital played a vital part in saving this young woman’s life.”

Mary continues to see Professor Chong at St George Hospital as an outpatient and when I met her in March she was in good health. Will she be able to travel again? Prof Chong says yes but she will need to take some precautions before embarking on a long-haul flight. Mary is also now aware that her aching leg and swollen foot was a warning sign that something wasn’t quite right.

Thankfully this story has a happy ending, but I think Mary’s experience highlights the need for us to continue to foster and support our wonderful medical researchers at St George and Sutherland Hospitals. We know that hospitals with major research activity and achievements attract and retain the best staff.

I hope this story has both inspired you and given you some insight into the practical outcomes of medical research and how it can benefit all of us. I am sure you will agree that Danijela is an extraordinary mother and both Danijela and Mary have shown immense courage throughout this battle.

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