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From Blood Clot to NCAA Champion

5/29/2013

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Photos Courtesy University of Tampa Athletics

Heather Glenday knew something was wrong. This wasn’t like any other morning practice.

“I was complaining that my arm was feeling funny,” Heather recalls. “I looked down and my right arm was swollen like The Hulk.”

It was the University of Tampa swimmer’s off-season, just weeks after the 2012 NCAA Championships. Heather,Heather Glenday (medium) who grew up swimming for Babylon High School in New York, was preparing herself for an Olympic Trials qualifying attempt later that summer. But in the middle of practice one morning, her arm became so enlarged that there was a noticeable difference. She felt funny. She knew something was wrong. But, thinking that her swollen arm was just some strange effect from over-training, the Long Island native and Tampa transplant didn’t even want to get out of the pool.

“I was more embarrassed than anything,” Heather said. “My coaches were making jokes. I said this is ridiculous. I didn’t even want to get out. But my coaches finally told me I should get out.”

She went to the trainer, who thought that she could have a blood clot. She went immediately to the ER. She had no idea she would end up being there the next two weeks of her life.

“I told my parents, ‘Oh it’s nothing serious,’” Heather said. “My dad said, since I was such a fit athlete, that he was going to be surprised if it was a blood clot.”

Surprised because super-fit athletes generally don’t formulate blood clots. Or can they? Heather, entering her junior year, underwent 14 hours of testing in the ER before doctors concluded that she had a blood clot in her arm, known as Paget-Schroetter Syndrome. Heather had to stay in the hospital for one week before surgery. Doctors hooked her up on blood-thinning IVs just to make sure the blood clot didn’t worsen before the procedure.

Ultimately, Heather had to have her first rib removed. A vein was taken out of her ankle and put into her arm to fix the clot. Finally, two weeks after Heather noticed her Hulk-like swollen arm, she was undergoing the procedure to fix it.

So what happened? How could this have happened to an incredibly fit athlete?

Though relatively rare, Paget-Schroetter Syndrome isn’t as uncommon as you might think, especially in athletesHeather Glenday (medium) that significantly use their arms in constant repetitive motions. Swimmers can get it. So can baseball players, according to research Heather has learned about.

Though she is back 100%, Heather was out of the pool for over a month. She continues to swim, though she has to be cautious to monitor the other side of her body to make sure the blood clot doesn’t return.

“With any overhead repetitive motion, getting upper body strength, it squishes the veins off if you get strong enough,” Heather explained. “The way I am and my body is, my bones were forced together more strongly than most people.”

Still though, a blood clot, two weeks in the hospital, and a missing rib didn’t stop Heather from swimming well this season. This story has a happy ending.

Though Heather wasn’t able to make the Olympic Trials last summer, she returned to the competition pool this fall better than ever. And, remarkably, this winter at the 2013 D2 NCAA Championships, Heather won an NCAA title as part of the University of Tampa’s 800 freestyle relay.

“I didn’t get to train this last swimmer,” Heather said. “It was totally up in the air. I wasn’t thinking about the surgery, but I was more just nervous to swim in all of my events.”

Heather’s success proves this story had a happy ending. But this type of potential blood clotting is something swimmers and their coaches need to be made aware. If left untreated, it could cause pain and discomfort the rest of your life. Heather considers herself fortunate that she detected the clotting and sought medical treatment as soon as she could.

“People definitely need to be aware of it,” Heather said. “If it’s not treated, it can affect you the rest of your life. Be aware of your body. My arm was unbelievably swollen. If my trainer hadn’t caught it, I don’t know if I would have pursued higher medicine.”