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Blood clots and basketball: How PTE surgery helped a former NBA great get his life back

When blood clots travel from the arms and legs to the lungs, life-threatening pulmonary embolism can occur. But, a 10-hour surgery helped Em Bryant bounce back.

CHICAGO — Pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening and affects around one in 1,000 people in the U.S. every year. In most cases, pulmonary embolism is caused by blood clots in the legs or arms that travel to the lungs. With timely treatment, most people can recover. But for some, those clots become chronic, and even the most physically fit people can fall victim.

Fifty-three years after his big win with the Celtics, number seven, Em Bryant, has still got it!

Now 85 years old, he still proudly wears his 1969 championship ring and works hard to stay fit on and off the court.

“I was used to being in the gym for a couple hours and then swimming a quarter mile and half a mile,” Bryant said.

But then, his pulmonologist, Michael Cuttica, MD at Northwestern Medicine, noticed that he had a series of clotting events or pulmonary embolism in the lung and never fully recovered from it.

The fatigue Bryant felt was a clear sign that his clots did not go away with blood thinners.

“When I met them, they got to the point where he couldn't even go for walks with his wife," Dr. Cuttica explained.  

When clots don’t go away, they can turn into scar tissue or chronic clots in the walls of the pulmonary arteries, and this can lead to chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension, or CTEPH.

Bryant underwent a pulmonary thromboendarterectomy surgery. Surgeons attached Bryant to a heart-lung bypass machine, cooling his body to 64 degrees Fahrenheit to protect his organs. Surgeons then turned off the heart-lung machine, stopping circulation for up to 20 minutes. They opened the arteries and remove the clots. After a week in the hospital, Bryant was back home, and a few months later, he was back in the gym.

“I’ve since learned how to pace myself, now,” Bryant said.

“I look forward to the day where I get to go and shoot some hoops with him,” Dr. Cuttica said.

For patients who are not well enough or strong enough for the ten-hour PTE surgery, doctors can also try medications, or use a minimally invasive balloon catheter to try and push the clots out of the way. If not treated, the clots can become life-threatening.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Shelby Kluver at shelby.kluver@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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