Ray and Lois moved to Tucson from Houston when they retired from the oil industry nearly 20 years ago, when they were both 55. Last year, Lois had a pacemaker implanted to address her irregular and rapid heartbeat. To avoid blood clots, she was prescribed a new blood thinner, believed to have fewer side effects than an older drug in more widespread use. The doctor, Ray recalls, didn’t say anything about the drug’s risks or list any symptoms to watch out for.
About four months later, Lois developed some breathing problems. She wasn’t alarmed; she’d had pneumonia several times before. A few weeks later, she landed in the emergency room where they x-rayed her chest, confirmed that she had pneumonia, and sent her home with antibiotics.
Six weeks later, after more ER visits and two weeks in the intensive care unit, she was dead.
Ray said, “It was so fast, and she suffered so much. It just broke my heart.”
The congestion in her lungs wasn’t pneumonia. Instead, her lungs were filling with blood, almost certainly because of the blood thinner. The manufacturer warns that it “can cause serious, potentially fatal bleeding.” Even though the doctors figured out two weeks before she died that she hemorrhaging, they were unable to reverse the blood thinner’s side effect.
Ray reflected, “She loved to read. She would sit out the deck where I’m sitting right now. We would sit out on the deck with our awning out during the monsoons and watch the rain come in, and she would sit here and read. . .We were married for 48 years. We have no kids. I have no relatives.”
To help avoid the tragedy of a “too early” death for yourself or loved ones, five steps you can take are:
- When prescribed a new drug, ask about potential side effects and read all the literature the pharmacist gives you. Be clear about what risks drop (such as blood clots) and what risks increase (such as excessive bleeding).
- Start by assuming that any new symptoms in people age 65+ are side effects of drugs (advised researchers in one study of elderly patients’ medical problems).
- Seek treatment promptly for new symptoms, even if they are similar to previous ones.
- Ask when you should start to feel better, and return to the doctor promptly if you don’t improve.
- If the first treatment doesn’t help (per Dr. Jerome Groopman, who writes about misdiagnosis), ask: “What else could it be?” “Is there anything that doesn’t fit?” “Is it possible that I have more than one problem?” Lois had a low red blood cell count, which can suggest internal bleeding, but this possibility was not investigated promptly.