When life throws you a clot: my experience with pulmonary emboli

Intravenous IV drip

I will always remember learning how to cut a crown preparation for the first time. As I sat in class and looked down at my hands, I wondered if they would ever be skilled and steady enough to refine a margin or achieve the perfect taper. I felt intimidated, but the crushing weight and pressure on my chest did not feel like normal school stress or anxiety. At that exact moment, life was literally throwing me a curve ball (or as I later found out, three).

In our lab session following class, I found myself struggling to catch my breath and felt extreme discomfort in my chest and arms. With the help of faculty members and classmates, I was taken to the emergency room, where I waited for hours with many unanswered questions. My diagnosis finally came: three pulmonary emboli. While it felt reassuring to know exactly what I was facing, I had no idea what a long struggle the recovery would be.  

After a hospital stay through the weekend, I transitioned to life back at home. I was so weak that I could not make it up or down my apartment stairs and I slept in a recliner to alleviate the crushing pressure on my chest. The remainder of my semester was filled with various medications, dozens of doctor’s appointments and living with a daily fear that my body had betrayed me. A young, healthy and busy 23-year-old typically doesn’t experience a life-threatening medical emergency with no identifiable cause, but I had defied the statistics. Since August 2015, I have been coping with the aftermath of my health scare and have since learned several valuable lessons I want to share.

  • Listen to your body. When school gets crazy, it is easy to brush off symptoms of illness as a consequence of one too many late nights in the library. Do not let a busy schedule mask what your body is trying to tell you. No test, practical or assignment is more important than your health.
  • Find faculty and staff you feel comfortable confiding in. Recovering from an illness and catching up on school work can be very stressful, so find a faculty or staff member at school who understands your situation and can advocate on your behalf. Do not be afraid to ask for tutoring or schedule accommodations. You need a community supporting you during your recovery.
  • Do not use rest as a reward. In dental school, it is so tempting to promise yourself ten minutes of shut-eye after finishing a deck of flashcards or a quick cat nap in exchange for reading a textbook chapter. After a major medical scare, your body needs rest to recover and heal. Schedule your study and school commitments in a way that honors the sleep your body will require to recuperate. This may mean cutting back on study sessions and lab time, but in the long run it will be beneficial to your health.
  • Use your health care experiences to better serve your patients. There were so many points throughout my recovery where I felt alone. While my doctors and nurses tried their best, they did not fully grasp the pain and uncertainty I was experiencing. This only made the ordeal more frightening. Having these types of encounters has taught me to be much quicker to listen to my patients than to speak.

Facing an unexpected health scare in dental school is no easy task, and it can be so difficult to take a step back and make yourself the priority.  Your health will allow you to enjoy a long and fruitful career in a profession you love, so it must be your first priority even in the midst of your hectic dental school life. Allow your body to rest, relax and recover so that you can continue to restore the smiles of your patients for years to come.

~ Emily Knott, Kentucky ’18, chapter lunch and learn coordinator

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About Emily Knott

Emily is a third-year dental student at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry and serves as a lunch and learn coordinator for her chapter. On her time off from school, she loves to spend time with her husband and puppy, read, and of course cheer on the CATS!

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