When former Nascar driver Brian Vickers was in his 20s, he dismissed lung pain and shortness of breath as having a few too many glasses of wine the night prior.
But the now-37-year-old wants others to know that paying attention to your body can save your life. Though Vickers delayed going to the ER for about four days during that episode, when he arrived, doctors diagnosed him with deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, a life-threatening health emergency. DVT would take him on and off the race track several times as it continued to plague him for years to come.
“I’ve seen a lot of people and I’ve talked to a lot of people, and they make excuses and they kick that cannon,” Vickers said. “That was a mistake I made in the beginning, and it’s something I’ll never make again. Something I always encourage my friends or anyone I speak to or when I do interviews is: If you think something’s wrong, just go to the ER.”
Knowing the signs of DVT
DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, such as the lower leg, pelvis, arm, or thigh, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While anyone can develop DVT, risk factors include limited movement, which can decelerate blood flow; vein injuries, such as fractures; chronic illness like heart or lung disease; increased estrogen from taking birth control; and factors including genetics, age, and weight.
Symptoms also vary from person to person, and may be nonexistent in some cases.
Vickers said the first signs of DVT came for him after biking with a friend and not being able to catch his breath. Next, his fingers turned white, and a few days later he began experiencing shortness of breath, which persisted in the coming days as he went about his routine activities.
Overall, Vickers ended up having four clotting episodes. Three of the four were DVT and two of the four included a pulmonary embolism, which is when one of the pulmonary arteries in the lungs becomes blocked. The last of the four was a clot on a patch of Vickers’ heart that broke off and fell into his kidney.
Learning from his health history
His next experience involved a leg injury on the race track, which required him to wear a boot.
“It was so stupid; I was just so reckless,” Vickers said. “I should have been on blood thinners when I had that on my foot. And I wasn’t, and I was immobilized. I had already shown a propensity to clot, and it turned into a DVT in my right leg.”
This time, when Vickers noticed his right calf was swollen and visibly larger than his left, he didn’t hesitate to call his doctor right away.
The following and final episode with DVT occurred when Vickers and his wife were on a cross-country flight, and he noticed subtle signs including shortness of breath.
“I looked at my wife, and I was like, I think I have another pulmonary embolism,” Vickers explained. “I had fought so hard to get my career back. I’d come back three times at this point, and I almost didn’t even want to go to the hospital.”
Despite his disappointment, he wasn’t stubborn like before. When he reached the ER, he baffled doctors when he requested a D-dimer test and a CT scan of his lungs, which revealed his suspicions were true.
Understanding treatment options
Now, Vickers has his health under control.
One of the medications he’s taking is Xeralto, or Rivaroxaban (its generic name), a blood thinner Vickers uses to help prevent future episodes of DVT and pulmonary embolism, and he acknowledges he “probably will be on it for the rest of my life.”
The medication and protocol he adopted with guidance from a team of hematologists helped enable him to be active and sometimes race in a safe way.
But everyone is different, and no medication is one-size-fits-all, Vickers emphasized. Yet he said it’s worth getting screened if you have symptoms and working with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that works for you.
Inspiring others with DVT
Vickers is thankful that he’s found a regimen that allows him to live a fulfilling life. “For anyone reading this and listening: You can live a great life,” Vickers said. “It’s not the end; it’s just the beginning. And we’re so lucky and blessed to live in this time where we can have these opportunities to take these medications that keep us healthy and active.
“If I can climb mountains and go biking and drive a racecar with blood clots,” Vickers added, “so can anyone else.”