At first, Todd Robertson’s email was just another unsolicited pitch from a stranger asking for a story on a cause that had become his passion.
It was just another pitch, that is, until I was headed to my friend Scot’s funeral over the weekend in Kansas City.
Robertson wrote to me March 1, the start of Blood Clot Awareness Month. He even added bold text for emphasis.
“I'm asking for a story,” he pleaded. “A story not about me, but about the awareness that is needed. Too many people are dying. If you were to walk up to anyone on the street and ask them what a pulmonary embolism was … or asked about blood clots in general, they would be clueless.”
Journalists receive these sorts of messages every day. One of the first rules of badgering us to pay attention is that we don’t tend to be stirred by a themed month or an awareness campaign. We crave a unique character and a timely, compelling hook driven by news. And, yes, conflict does help.
Robertson, 53, went on to explain that little more than a month before writing me he had been lucky to survive a pulmonary embolism (PE), a blood clot that had passed through his heart and lodged in his lung but didn’t kill him.
I was sympathetic but ultimately unmoved. I replied with a nice note — a gentle letdown that becomes something of an art form if you stick around long enough in this business.
“I’m glad that you’re doing OK, and that you’re getting the word out,” I wrote. “I don’t really target anything to awareness months.”
Less than two weeks later, I was blindsided by my timely, compelling and utterly horrible hook.
A good friend of mine since our college days, Scot Squires, keeled over and died from the very same thing: an undetected blood clot. While on a walk with his 12-year-old daughter.
After the initial shock, my mind reeled back to Robertson’s email. I felt guilty for having given him short shrift. It seemed as if the universe was compelling me to write what I should have written in the first days of March.
“I just had a forty-something friend in K.C. die of a blood clot on the street, suddenly,” I wrote Robertson. “I'm ready to talk.”
Robertson responded with immediate empathy. A devoted canoe paddler, he works as outreach coordinator for river programs for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources,
Three years ago he fell off a canoe trailer and ripped open the back of his leg. His aggressively clotting blood landed him in the hospital for 12 days. A year later, his swollen, purple foot signaled yet another clot.
That’s when concerned doctors discovered that he suffers from the Factor V Leiden genetic mutation of the blood protein that controls clotting, the homozygous variety that he inherited from both his parents. That makes Robertson far likelier to suffer a clot and put him on daily blood thinners for life.
The clot that nearly killed him was signaled by a “super sharp pain down just above my waist,” which he didn’t realize emanated from the back of his lung. He had been off blood thinners for several days around the time of a colonoscopy, which may have been a factor. After a few grueling days he finally visited a walk-in clinic and soon was ushered into an ambulance and rushed to Mercy Medical Center where he had been born.
Robertson thinks back to when he was 19 and helped his mom struggle into the passenger seat of their Buick LeSabre. She was just 42 and complaining of chest pains. During the drive from their home in West Des Moines' Valley Junction district, she fell silent, and her lips turned blue. Robertson veered into a pharmacy parking lot and called an ambulance. His mom died in the car seat next to him, from what he now suspects was a blood clot.
Robertson in his life has endured compounded grief from medical trauma. He’s also a widower whose wife, Roycene, died in 2013 from brain cancer.
His recent brush with death made him resolve to channel his outreach coordinator skills into raising awareness for what he considers a modern silent killer that according to the National Blood Clot Alliance is responsible the deaths of 274 Americans every day.
“They feel the cramp," Robertson said of people who unwittingly suffer blood clot symptoms, "the Charley horse in their calf, and blow it off — then die of a pulmonary embolism."