Five times in the past five years, Jeff Thompson has been told he is about to die.
“Within three days or just a matter of days,” the former Richmond County Sheriff’s deputy said matter-of-factly. He defied the odds each time. “And then after this last appointment they told me there was nothing they could do for me. Go out and enjoy whatever time I had left.”
Thompson, 45, is fighting a baffling blood-clotting disorder that has led to a massive stroke, several heart attacks, loss of vision in both eyes and constant and often excruciating pain despite daily injections of blood thinners.
His case is not unique, a fact that his family wants to educate the public about.
Venous thromboembolism – usually blood clots in deep veins in the leg or clots that travel to the lung – strikes an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 people a year and kills between 60,000 and 100,000 annually, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Because there is no good surveillance system for the problem, those numbers are probably underestimated, the authors concede.
Many of the leading risk factors – aging, lack of activity, obesity – are increasing, which is why the journal authors say it is a growing public health problem.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is among the agencies trying to promote greater awareness of clots and their often preventable risk factors, but in at least half of the cases, as in Thompson’s, there is no known risk factor immediately identified.
His problem began on a day when he would receive a commendation for his actions. In July 2001, Thompson helped chase down and apprehend robbers who had stolen $68,000 from an Augusta bank.
As he was getting out of his car, another deputy’s vehicle hit his and it ran over his leg. About six months later, the first clotting problem began.
“We really thought that it was just a fluke,” said his wife, Jessica Thompson. “You get a blood clot because you’ve had an injury.”
After being hospitalized and getting an anticoagulant drip, he was sent home. A week later, he told his wife he felt as though he had another clot in the leg. It turned out to be seven. He would go on to develop more than 30 more in that leg.
Despite being on blood thinners, he collapsed from a massive stroke while working at the jail in May 2010. That was his last day as a deputy after about 18 years with the department, and it was only the beginning of more serious problems.
In July 2011, what he thought was shoulder pain turned out to be a heart attack from clots in all of the major blood vessels feeding his heart, Jessica Thompson said. He had bypass surgery that November but the following July the pain returned.
“I knew something was wrong real quick,” Thompson said. All of the vessels were clotted again.
“Basically, he’s in the final stages of congestive heart failure,” his wife said. “And basically, we’ve seen every expert.”
A consultation at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill left the family with a massive binder of results but no real answers, other than Thompson lacks a natural anticlotting factor and that it is genetic.
“So our children have to be tested,” she said. “But as of right now, there’s not a cure. And so we just are at a loss.”
As they talk, their daughters, 19-year-old Ashlee and 14-year-old Lauren, sob quietly to the side as their mother tries to comfort them.
The family is not giving up, Jessica said. They are looking for clinical trials and starting a Web site for Thompson in the hopes that somebody who sees it might have an idea that could help.
“I’m hoping that someone may know someone,” Jessica said. “There may be a doctor out there. At this point, (perhaps) they could tell us that there is a drug that they wanted to try.”
They are also trying to educate the public and especially the medical community about just how widespread and how serious clots have become.
“The problem is that even the medical community is not acutely aware of what to do with a clot,” Jessica said. “There are so many people who are dying from it, and it is a growing, huge thing.”
Former colleagues from the sheriff’s office are helping to raise money for the family’s massive medical bills, and the family has set up a bank account for donations. That is Thompson’s big concern now.
“I pretty much made peace with it, and all I can do now is make sure they’re going to be OK,” he said of his family. “And, when I do go, that I’m not leaving them in such a debt that they can’t climb out of it.”
For his part, Thompson set a goal of living until Christmas this year and made a point of picking out almost every gift for his family.
“I wanted to be a part of it because for so many years, because of sacrifices to the sheriff’s department, I missed parties and Christmases and everything else and she’s always had to do everything,” he said.
The next aim is to make it to summer vacation, and perhaps well beyond that.
“My ultimate goal is to watch them walk down the aisle,” he said, looking at his daughters dab away tears. “If they want to drag it out, that’s fine with me.”