Former Division I Athlete’s Debilitating Pain Led Her to Blood Clot Awareness

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Sam Nelson’s own health scare drives her passion to support other blood clot survivors

Sam Nelson, blood clot survivor
Photo by John Michael Simpson

By Renee Ambroso

Sam Nelson learned to swim almost immediately after she started walking. She eagerly jumped into tough training by the time she left her native Washington, D.C., to attend East Carolina University, grinding through 8,000 yards in practice sessions to perfect her form for the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke. “All that training and the talent that I had meshed together,” Sam says of her successful freshman season. 

It was during a weekendlong swim meet the next fall when Sam felt pain shooting through her back. By Tuesday, she was coughing up blood on the side of the pool. Her teammates and the athletics staff couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She exhibited symptoms like discoloration and redness in the leg, swelling and pain alongside the signs of a pulmonary embolism (a clot that traveled to the lungs), shortness of breath and a rapid heartbeat. 

Sam’s close friend Kelly Hayden brought her to the emergency room, where doctors finally determined the source of Sam’s debilitating pain: deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or a blood clot, reaching from her thigh to her shin. 

After surgery to remove the clot and a 10-day stay in the intensive care unit, Sam was discharged on Thanksgiving. Without treatment, Sam’s condition could’ve been fatal. Despite a lengthy recovery during which she relearned how to walk and swim, Sam finished her last two years of collegiate swimming and was nationally ranked.

More than two decades later, humor colors Sam’s retelling of the traumatic experience. She jokes about her “clot-aversary” in late November. Continuing to deal with chronic pain and post-thrombotic syndrome hasn’t kept the Chapel Hill resident from running marathons, scuba diving and completing a triathlon, though she wears a compression stocking daily and takes blood thinners.

After working in consumer marketing for brands like Noodles & Company and Gold’s Gym, Sam swears fate intervened when she found a job at the Carrboro-based International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH) in 2019. Sam works as the campaign manager for World Thrombosis Day, an annual celebration on Oct. 13 and a yearlong program that helps to raise awareness of the risks and signs of blood clotting disorders and also improve health care practices and policy.

Sam shares her own story to keep others from feeling alone. Blood clots affect many, with one in four people worldwide dying from conditions caused by thrombosis, but in nearly 20 years, Sam has met only one other DVT survivor. “I’ve told [my] story hundreds of times,” she says, even though the memory is upsetting to her. “I still deal with the mental aspects of it today. There are so many blood clot survivors who suffer from PTSD, and I am one of them.” 

After her diagnosis and surgery, she “never thought about what had happened to me or the severity of it,” she says. “I didn’t understand what a blood clot was.” Only later did she learn that the most likely contributors were a family history of blood clots, sitting during a prolonged bus trip leading up to the swim meet and taking estrogen-based birth control. Sam also came to understand that blood clots can affect people of any age, race and fitness level, and that other risk factors include pregnancy and hospitalization for any reason – she says asking for a thrombosis risk assessment from your doctor is crucial. Sam adds that routinely standing up and walking throughout the day – and especially during long trips – can mitigate the risk of a clot forming.

She encourages others to utilize resources provided by the ISTH; to engage with support groups and social media; and to speak up for their own health. “I don’t let [DVT] define who I am,” Sam says. “It defines my job now, but it doesn’t define who I am.”

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