Atul Rao, a 21-year-old Indian-American student, went into a cardiac arrest and his heart stopped beating… six times in one day on 27 July. But due to miraculous and timely intervention by doctors at the Hammersmith Hospital and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Rao survived what is known as pulmonary embolism.
On 4 October, the fully recovered 21-year-old revisited St Thomas' Hospital to thank the doctors who saved his life.
"Before this happened, I was starting to wonder if I was doing the right thing doing medicine and whether I should be going into business instead. But the minute I woke up, I knew. I want to use my time in a productive way. I want to use my second chance at life by helping others."Atul Rao to BBC
What happened? Rao, who is pursuing a pre-medical degree, was in London when he suddenly collapsed. He had developed blood clots in his lungs, which gave way to a cardiac arrest because the blood flow to his heart was curbed, and his heart stopped.
This happened six times throughout the day.
What is a pulmonary embolism?
Pulmonary embolism is a “blood clot that develops in a blood vessel and then travels to a lung artery, where it suddenly blocks blood flow,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Because of the embolism:
Blood doesn’t flow to the heart
Oxygen levels drop
Blood pressure in the arteries increases
And this leads the heart to stop functioning.
Who is at risk?
People who have a family history or a personal history of blood clots
People who’ve had any surgery done on their legs or are on bed rest (limited mobility)
People with any kind of comorbidities
People with sedentary lifestyles
Are there any warning signs or symptoms of pulmonary embolism?
Yes, these may indicate a pulmonary embolism:
Irregular or fast heartbeat
Reduced blood pressure
Pain or discolouration in your leg
Excessive sweating and anxiety
Is pulmonary embolism fatal?
If not diagnosed correctly and treated on time, pulmonary embolisms can be fatal as the restricted blood flow to other organs can damage them too.
But they can also be prevented by opting for a healthier lifestyle with proper exercise, a balanced diet, and avoiding smoking.
How is this condition diagnosed?
To diagnose pulmonary embolism, the doctors might ask the patient for their entire medical history record, conduct blood tests, and also have the patient undergo a chest X-ray, an MRI, CT scan, ECG, or a pulmonary angiogram.
How is this treated?
Pulmonary embolisms are treated by giving anticoagulants (or blood thinners) which prevent additional clots from being formed.
In Rao’s case, he was treated with clot-busters to break down the clots already formed in his body.
He was also helped by extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which is essentially a heart-lung-bypass machine that gives support till the organs start functioning on their own.
In severe cases, a catheter tube might be inserted or surgery performed on the patient.