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Pulmonary embolism can happen to anyone, just ask Serena Williams

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Last Friday, tennis sensation Serena Williams told Piers Morgan that last year’s pulmonary embolism surgery was “a lot easier” to endure than her recent breakup. Her ex should be flattered, since pulmonary embolisms kill 60,000 people each year, according to the American Heart Association. That said, you may wonder what a pulmonary embolism is and how someone so young and athletic suffered one.

First, you should know where the pulmonary artery is and what it does. About an inch wide and 2 inches long, the pulmonary artery sits at the base of the heart’s right ventricle and branches into two arteries that pump de-oxygenated blood to each corresponding lung. A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot forms in one of the body’s larger veins – often the legs – and travels until it lodges in one of those two arteries. As oxygen levels in the body decrease, and pressure builds in the heart, the person suffering the pulmonary embolism may feel lightheaded and short of breath. She may also feel sharp chest pain that gets worse when inhaling, and she may cough up blood.

According to MedicineNet.com, “[E]ven those who are healthy and fit can be at risk for pulmonary embolism due to prolonged immobilization (as with extended car or plane travel or hospitalization and bed rest) or circumstances that damage the blood vessel walls, making a clot more likely to form.”

In July of 2010, Serena needed 18 stitches and surgery after stepping on a shard of glass. She continued to have problems with that foot, so she underwent more surgery last February. She likely suffered the pulmonary embolism on the long flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Dr. Michael Jaff, medical director for Massachusetts General Hospital Vascular Center, told Boston.com that traveling such a long distance with an immobilized foot increased her risk for developing a blood clot. “Sitting for prolonged periods where blood can pool in the feet can cause increased clotting, especially if the blood is unable to circulate easily due to a bandage or cast,” he said. If travel is unavoidable, Jaff prescribes blood thinners for his patients. Blood thinners allow blood to flow past the artery blockage, and patients typically continue to take them for three to six months after suffering a pulmonary embolism.

Smoking, old age, and obesity increase one’s risk of developing a blood clot. Taking birth control like Yaz would have tripled Serena’s risk of developing one. In fact, Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals recently settled 500 of nearly 11,300 lawsuits pending in the United States. If you suffered a pulmonary embolism while taking Yaz, contact a Yaz settlement attorney to discuss your potential claim.