Travel health news: neurosurgeon aims to educate travelers on prevention of fatal blood clots


PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania – More than 350,000 people are affected by Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) and Pulmonary Embolisms (PE) each year in the US, and 100,000 people die from the condition. This currently surpasses the number of people affected by AIDS and Breast Cancer combined. And most of these deaths, according to John K. Ratliff, a neurosurgeon, could have been prevented.

Two weeks before his wedding, Dr. Ratliff, who is a marathon runner and frequent flyer, was out of breath going up the stairs after taking his dog, Brutus, for a walk. He shrugged it off to fatigue, but went for a chest x-ray and blood work anyway. Given a clean bill of health, he still felt out of breath and tired.

The next day he experienced excruciating calf pain. He wasted no time checking into the hospital emergency room, where he diagnosed himself with DVT. After an MRI and treatment with the blood-thinning drug Coumadin, he learned that not only did he have a DVT, but also a severe PE, which occurs when a blood clot breaks loose and moves through the bloodstream to the lungs, often causing a life-threatening condition. He realized that his weekly flights from Chicago to Philadelphia probably caused the condition and vowed to never let it happen to anyone else again.

Today, Ratliff, who received his medical degree from Tulane University School of Medicine and is an associate professor of neurosurgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, launched a nationwide DVT prevention campaign, “Travel Healthy: Prevent DVTs.” The outreach effort includes free DVT prevention posters and placards that he hopes the airline industry will eventually display prominently in all of their in-flight communications and on the backs of all airplane seats. He also wants to alert those companies whose executives travel cross country or on long international flights about the condition, its symptoms, and how it can be prevented.

“If this could happen to me, and I have extensive medical knowledge, then people who travel a lot are certainly at greater risk,” said Ratliff. “My goal in this effort is to make every American aware of the condition and show them very simple ways they can prevent it from ever happening in the first place.”

Ratliff said that sometimes DVT symptoms can be difficult to detect, which is why it is such a serious public health concern. In February 2003, more than 60 organizations attended a conference on DVTs in Washington, DC, and later that year, formed the “Coalition to Prevent DVTs” in an effort to raise awareness of the generally preventable condition. Dr. Ratliff said that the death of NBC News anchor David Bloom, and a recent incident with pop singer Lady Gaga, also helped to raise awareness. Melanie Bloom, David Bloom’s widow, is the Coalition’s national patient spokesperson.

Dr. Ratliff recommends that anyone who plans to fly should be aware of dehydration and practice some simple calf-stretching exercises. Sitting for any length of time is considered to be a risk-factor associated with DVT, and people with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk of clotting are likely to have a higher than average risk, according to Ratliff.

“In the free DVT prevention posters, we recommend that: people who fly sit in an appropriate position; keep their thighs clear of the edge of their seats to avoid pressure; avoid crossing their legs at the ankles and knees; wear loose-fitted clothing and even compression stockings; and elevate their feet by using a footrest or luggage. And, we include graphics and descriptions of in-flight exercises that we hope everyone will eventually practice as second nature,” said Ratliff.

For more information on DVT prevention, or to download the Travel Healthy: Prevent DVT posters, visit the Facebook page – “Deep Venous Thrombosis Prevention.”

Dr. Ratliff is a board-certified neurosurgeon with more than 15 years experience treating patients with a broad range of neurological disorders.