When the healthy Rachael Stewart started having trouble breathing, she thought it was a harmless chest infection – and her GP confirmed it.
But when her chest pain worsened ten days later, in February 2019 – after five days of antibiotics, her doctor sent her to the emergency room.
Within 24 hours, Rachael, 28, from Glasgow, who had previously run a half marathon, was told she had a blood clot and her lungs had started to collapse and she needed urgent treatment.
Rachael’s world was “turned upside down” – she spent the next few days in the hospital and the next two years trying to regain her strength.
Now the business account manager takes part in competitions and raises awareness of blood clots, as she accepts that she will be hospitalized for the rest of her life.
Rachael said: “The last healthy breath I took was sometime in January 2019 and I didn’t even realize it.
“There were points where I thought, ‘Am I going to die? Coming from sane and learning that life may never be the same was shocking.
“To this day the doctors have no idea what caused this to happen to me.
“My right lung is still partially collapsed and at 60 per cent capacity – doctors are confident it will never get better, but I accept my health and have adjusted my life and routine to suit my needs.
“I’ve realized that by sharing my story, I can help others understand what life is like on the other side – and give them hope.”
OUT OF THE BLUE
Rachael has always prided herself on being fit and healthy.
She had previously been to the gym regularly, running a half marathon in 2016 and running 10k several times a week.
When she first started feeling unwell and experiencing chest pains in February 2019, she went to see her GP, who prescribed a five-day course of antibiotics for a chest infection.
As her symptoms worsened, her doctor referred her to the emergency room at Monklands Hospital, where an X-ray revealed Rachael’s lungs were collapsing and she had to remain in the hospital.
It also revealed that a pulmonary embolism had occurred – a sudden blockage of your pulmonary arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood to your lungs.
Rachael said: “After being reassured by my GP, a few hours after arriving at the hospital I found that my lungs were no longer supplied with blood because there was a large blood clot in my body.
“I just sat there in silence while they explained everything to me.
“At 23, I was told I was losing the blood supply to an organ that is essential to everything.
“They also found that I had an inflamed lymph node and an unknown growth.
“When I realized the lungs had collapsed and the blood supply was being lost, I knew it wasn’t good.
“I texted my dad and said I was in the hospital and it was more serious than I thought.”
Rachael asked if she was losing her lungs but didn’t get a definitive answer.
Her doctors were confident that they had caught the blood clot in time, so she immediately started blood-thinning injections and prescribed six months of blood thinners to be taken daily.
She stayed in the hospital for two days before returning home to continue her recovery.
Life is never the same again
However, when she returned home, life was very different because things that used to be easy for her, such as going to the toilet or going down the stairs, were now difficult.
She felt tired, breathless, and the pain in her chest lasted for months.
She stopped going to the gym and running, instead limiting herself to short walks to rebuild her stamina.
Rachael’s recovery took a year as she contracted chest infections and required two weekly airway checks, GP check-ups and regular CT scans.
She had to sign a disclosure statement stating that her risk of cancer was increased due to the number of scans required.
Rachael said: “My life had turned upside down. I had never seen anyone have a blood clot, so I didn’t know about it.
“I used to be someone who played a lot of sports, but my life changed very quickly.
“It was crazy. After the first few weeks, I tried to run 100 meters, but found it difficult.
“I literally just walked at a snail’s pace and even then I had to come back because my lungs felt tight, I was breathless or I was just tired.
“I had severe chest pain for a while. I was always out of breath when I got up and went to the toilet. I slept about 14 to 16 hours a day.
“I didn’t know if my lungs would recover or if it would kill me.”
Rachael still went to work, but her social life deteriorated.
Still single at the time, she felt she couldn’t be honest about dating and couldn’t drink alcohol due to her medication.
She said: “Sometimes I would tell people I was with that I was on blood thinners and they almost ran away like that was a red flag. I had to explain that it’s not contagious.
“But it seemed like I had baggage, so I never told people and kept it to myself.
“Otherwise people looked at me differently and felt sorry for me. They acted like I was a broken, destroyed person.
“Yes, my life has changed, but I’m alive and I can deal with it!”
Rachael started chatting about her with a woman Instagram page who was looking for others with pulmonary embolism and Rachael realized she could help and show others what life is like on the other side.
LIVE YOUR DREAM
She always wanted to enter beauty pageants and grew up watching Miss Congeniality.
Her fear of blood clots made her realize her life could be taken in a second, so she decided to enter her first beauty pageant in August 2022 and came fourth.
Rachael said: “2020 was the year I decided to take the time to learn to deal with myself and get over what happened.
“I wanted to show people who are suffering that things can be okay, that you can be normal, and show young people like me that life will be okay.”
“Then I started thinking about beauty pageants – something I’ve always wanted to do. I know now that life can be extinguished at any time.
“If I hadn’t gone to the doctor when I thought I had a chest infection, I probably wouldn’t be here.
“So I thought, I’ve always loved Miss Congeniality, I’ll give it a go and pretend I know what I’m doing!
“I went into the Miss United Kingdom final as Ms North Lanarkshire 2022 and then came fourth in the Royal International Miss United Kingdom final.
“I love every single moment of beauty pageant life and will be signing up for more and continue to raise awareness.”
Now in 2023, Rachael is grateful for the position she is in.
She is in a happy relationship and enjoys spending her weekends exploring nature on long walks.
She also works with a personal trainer to continue working on her fitness journey and is learning to love herself.
But life is still a little different as her right lung will likely never be at full function.
She said: “Yes, I have compromised lung function, had an unknown number of CT scans and MRIs, multiple failed biopsies and a few hospitalizations, but I am healthier than ever.”
“Mentally and physically I’m proud of myself for going through all of this and not giving up.
“I am living proof that things will eventually get better.”