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Nearly two years ago, NBC correspondent David Bloom died in Iraq. Approaching the anniversary of her husband's death, Melanie Bloom recalls her loss, and the quick education she received in an often silent killer called DVT.
"Mel, I’m going to Iraq." I steeled myself. Those were the words I dreaded to hear from my husband, NBC News correspondent, David Bloom. I knew from his impassioned appeals at Pentagon meetings that he had a technologically ambitious plan to cover the impending war in Iraq. David, along with his NBC News crew, would embed with the Third Infantry Division and report from the battlefield via a rugged, highly mobile, miniature satellite truck, (later dubbed, the "Bloomobile"). This cutting edge technology would allow David to broadcast live from the front lines even with American forces on the move.
I was proud of David’s determination to tell the soldiers’ story, and to bring the reality of war home to the American people. But deep inside, I didn’t want David to go. I — along with many other journalist and military families — deeply feared the dangers of war. I feared for David’s safety.
An awful event did take David’s life in the sand-blown heat of war, but the killer was neither an insurgent’s bullet nor mortar shell. When my telephone rang that night in April 2003, through a fog of shock and grief, I remember thinking, "What? He died of what?" I had never heard of deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolism (PE). And yet these unknown, unseen conditions took the life of my husband and father of my three little girls.
Along with profound loss and grief, come questions. Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? As I learn about David’s condition, an aching truth emerges. This is preventable and treatable. There’s every reason to think my husband should be living today, had we known of this danger. Of course, nothing can change what happened. But what I can do is work to raise public and medical community awareness about David’s little known killer, DVT and PE.
I have learned that DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a large vein, usually in a leg. A potentially fatal PE happens if the blood clot breaks loose, migrates to the lungs and blocks a pulmonary artery or one of its branches.
It has rightly been called a silent epidemic. DVT affects up to 2 million Americans per year and PE causes up to 200,000 U.S. deaths annually — more than AIDS and breast cancer combined. While some call it the "economy class syndrome," it in fact casts a far wider net.
Among hospital patients, DVT and PE are the number one cause of unexpected death. Worse, two out of three such deaths could have been prevented, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA).
And yet, few know of this killer. Nearly three-quarters of Americans have little or no awareness of either DVT or PE, according to the APHA. Samuel Z. Goldhaber, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, wrote in 2003: "The disconnect between evidence and execution as it relates to DVT prevention amounts to a public health crisis."
My introduction to DVT came during a pivotal chapter in David’s career. In the year leading up to the war, he was shuttling back and forth to Kuwait. He would spend weeks with the troops in the desert, then off to the Pentagon for chemical and biological warfare training, then back to New York to co-anchor the weekend "Today" show. When he ultimately embedded with the 3rd I.D. and began the long push across the Iraqi desert, he managed to stay in close touch.
In one of his frequent e-mails home, he wrote to our girls that it was hard being away from his family. But, characteristically, he added a word for the troops: "When you’re missing me, as I am missing you, remember to say a prayer for all those other boys and girls who are missing their mommies and daddies too. Perhaps some of them, even though you may not know it, will be saying prayers for you."
With growing apprehension, I watched the news. I watched as David quickly donned a gas mask while a chemical alert sounded in the background. I watched, with heart thudding, when David crouched down and urgently relayed to Tom Brokaw "We’re under fire, Tom!" I watched with a smile as he held glow sticks up next to his face so that he could still be seen during a blinding sandstorm. And I fought the tears when he wished our twin daughters "happy birthday" through the television set — their little faces beaming up at his image.
Through all of this, David called home nearly every day via satellite phone. One such call came a few days before his death. He was speaking in a whisper. He said his unit had reached the outskirts of Baghdad and he was sleeping outside atop the fender of the M-88 tank he had been riding. "We have to be quiet," he said. "We can’t have lights or any noise because of the possibility of ambush." I said, "David, why are you sleeping outside? Get back into the tank where it’s safe!" But he said he had been confined too long inside too small a space. His legs had been cramping and he couldn’t bear another night with his knees tucked to his chin. He went on to tell me about the stars over Baghdad as he lay there, gazing into a cold, desert night sky. As I look back now, I wish I had recognized the most dangerous warning sign of all — those whispered complaints of leg cramps.
David had at least three key risk factors for DVT. There was prolonged immobility as he worked, ate and slept inside a tank. Next, he was dehydrated. He and the troops were subsisting on rationed water supplies. And only too late did we learn David carried an inherited blood coagulant disorder called Factor V Leiden, a symptom-free condition that increases risk of DVT.
This non-discriminatory disease takes its toll on the young, old, male, female, fit and unfit. Risk factors or triggering events include cancer, immobility from an acute illness or surgery, obesity, pregnancy, long-distance travel with little mobility, post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy, even going on "the pill."
Everyone should take a moment to read more at www.preventdvt.org. Everyone should know, too, that doctors can readily prevent or treat DVT with blood-thinning drugs. Too few health care professionals routinely assess risk for the disease, leading to unnecessary deaths, the APHA says.
When David passed away, I was overwhelmed and humbled by the response. Our family received some 80,000 letters of sympathy. A handful in particular struck me. One came from a woman who wrote that she watched the news about David and cried along with everyone. Her family loved him and admired his work. When her husband had a pain in his leg, he decided to go get it checked. He was diagnosed with deep-vein thrombosis.
In a memo to the Pentagon outlining his innovative plan to cover the war, David wrote: "There is no more sacred trust — for a soldier or a journalist — than to go into combat and acquit oneself with honor and integrity. All I’m asking is for the chance to do that — to do my job — to the best of my ability."
David did just that. And now I want to do my job — alerting people to the dangers of DVT — to the best of my ability. A simple message: Go to the doctor for a check-up. Simple, yet profound. It can save your life, or that of someone you love.
Melanie Bloom lives with her three children in New York. She is a national spokeswoman for the Coalition to Prevent DVT.
March is DVT awareness month. For more information about the signs, symptoms and risk factors for DVT, as well as the Coalition to Prevent DVT, please visit www.preventdvt.org.