The Problem: A Sudden Blood Clot
Amy Bonner enjoys being active. The 45-year-old marketing consultant loves spending time with friends and family, including her husband and two sons. She also loves traveling and taking part in community theatre.
Until almost a decade ago, the Mount Lebanon resident never knew a serious and rare vascular condition would threaten her active life.
“I didn't know I had May-Thurner syndrome,” Amy says.
About 10 years ago, a then-36-year-old Amy was “just feeling lousy” one icy, winter night.
“Right after dinner, I decided to head upstairs and lie down,” Amy says. “As I climbed the stairs, my left leg felt heavy, almost like it was asleep. By the time I reached the top of the stairs and looked at it, my whole leg was purple.”
Amy knew this wasn't normal and had a feeling she should seek medical help. But, since the roads were so bad, she decided to first speak with a nurse.
“I described my symptoms to the nurse on the phone. She very calmly replied, ‘honey, you need to hang up the phone and get to the hospital right now.’”
With her instinct confirmed by a medical professional, Amy took off right away for the closest emergency room.
The Path to UPMC's Heart and Vascular Institute
Amy arrived at her nearest ER, where the medical team remained puzzled at her health problem.
After they admitted her for observation, the attending physician offered to do a venogram to confirm a potential diagnosis. A venogram is an x-ray of the vein that shows blood flow.
But, when the team tried the x-ray, they found Amy had a six-inch blood clot in her left iliac vein. Doctors transferred Amy to the Heart and Vascular Institute Division of Vascular Surgery at UPMC Presbyterian for an exam and treatment.
The HVI offers patients access to a combined team of:
- Lung specialists
- Interventional cardiologists
- Heart and vascular surgeons
Together, these experts offer complete care and advanced treatment for an array of heart and blood vessel problems.
Rabih Chaer, MD, chief of vascular surgery, diagnosed Amy with May-Thurner syndrome (MTS).
MTS is a serious vascular condition in which the right iliac artery presses on the left iliac vein. The pressing causes a “kink in the plumbing,” which can lead to discomfort, swelling, and pain.
Sometimes, the bottlenecked vein can cause a severe blood clot called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
DVTs can quickly become life-threatening if the clot breaks off and moves to the heart, lung, or brain. Amy had this extremely dangerous complication to a somewhat unknown disease.
“May-Thurner syndrome is not very common, though awareness is increasing,” Dr. Chaer says. “We've seen maybe 50 cases over the last 10 years in western Pennsylvania, including Amy's.”
The Solution: A Life-Saving Stent
Amy's six-inch blood clot was a DVT. Clots of this size are more common in older adults. Doctors often prescribe blood thinners that let them live with the clot and avoid surgery.
Since Amy was only 36 years old, Dr. Chaer knew blood thinners weren't the right treatment for her active lifestyle.
“Amy is young. The goal of her care was to improve her quality of life,” Dr. Chaer says.
This meant using a more innovative, minimally invasive treatment method that wasn't as common 10 years ago.
“We chose to dissolve and remove Amy's clot with drugs through a catheter,” Dr. Chaer explains. “We then placed a stent [in the left iliac vein] to strengthen it and prevent future clotting.”
The Result: Active and Symptom-Free 10 Years Later
At the time, doctors mostly used this stent for arterial applications only and hadn't widely used it for veins. But, 10 years later, it's proven to be more than effective.
“The stent placement was certainly far less invasive than surgery,” Dr. Chaer says. “It's lasted 10 years, with no complications.”
Amy has been able to continue her actively involved life while staying symptom-free. She still takes part in her local theater and visits Dr. Chaer every year for a check-up.
When asked about her care at UPMC, Amy says “I'm so grateful that I was at UPMC. My nurses continually told me, ‘you're lucky to be alive.’ If I hadn't been there or under the care of Dr. Chaer, I don't think I would have had the same outcome.”
The advanced technology at UPMC was part of the reason behind Amy's successful treatment.
“Dr. Chaer has worked with other patients with similar diagnoses to me. It's comforting, and hopeful, to know that he's so successful,” Amy says.
Still, almost a decade later, looking back at her ordeal sometimes doesn't feel real.
“It's almost surreal, in a way, because I had been so healthy beforehand, ” Amy says. “I sometimes feel guilty. My husband and mom had to go through the fear and panic of not knowing what was going to happen to me.”
But, with the trust in Dr. Chaer's innovative treatment plan, Amy was able to be around to raise her kids.
Following her diagnosis of May-Thurner syndrome, Amy and her husband found a new appreciation of life.
“We were always daydreaming of things to do with our kids,” says Amy. “But at three and five-years-old, we figured we would get to our dreams when they were older.”
One of these dreams was a trip to Walt Disney World, which the family took months after Amy's life-saving surgery.
“We realized we just needed to do it! We've gone back a few times since that first trip. It has really become a favorite spot for our entire family,” Amy says.
Amy and her family also enjoy trips to the beach, camping and hiking, and family game nights.
Her sons — now teenagers — have learned more about their mother's health journey as they have grown up.
“My youngest son, when he was about nine, said to me, ‘I had no idea my mom was part-robot!’ They're learning the gravity of the situation and the appreciation we have for my treatment.”
Amy is grateful for the life she has now, with no limits.
“A diagnosis like this really changes your perspective,” Amy says. “You learn not to sweat the small stuff and enjoy life. I'm so appreciative of the care I received, both 10 years ago and today, from Dr. Chaer and his team.”
Amy's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.
Learn More About May-Thurner Syndrome
From the UPMC HealthBeat blog: What Is May-Thurner Syndrome?