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Michael Johns's Death: What You Need to Know About Blood Clots

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
August 4, 2014

Photo by Getty Images

Fans are in shock after the sudden death of Australian singer and “American Idol” finalist Michael Johns, who passed away on Friday at age 35 from a blood clot in his ankle. The news sent people reeling, wondering how a simple issue could have turned fatal.

Johns, who achieved fame after an excellent run on the talent series in 2008, went on to write songs for films and other artists. Last week in Los Angeles, he reportedly twisted his ankle and went to see a doctor because of swelling and bruising that traveled up his leg. But he was sent home, according to TMZ, and was found unresponsive in a friend’s apartment the next day. He was dead by the time paramedics arrived.

“Blood clots are an underappreciated killer in this country,” American Society of Hematology vice president Charles Abrams told Yahoo Health.

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But blood clots can also be a very useful part of our body’s mechanism, as it’s a way to seal off a hole in a blood vessel when we cut ourselves. “So we need the elegant system we have to stop bleeding,” he said. Problems arise, though, when a clot forms in a place where it doesn’t belong, an occurrence called thrombosis. When it’s in a deep or large vessel, it’s called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and is sometimes big enough to block the flow of blood.

For many people, the clot can remain and not cause any problems. But if a piece of the clot breaks off, it can become stuck in the lungs, becoming a pulmonary embolism. “This is where clots get deadly,” said Abrams, associate chief of the hematology-oncology division at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a director of the Blood Center for Patient Care and Discovery at the University of Pennsylvania. And while he is not familiar with the specifics of Johns’s case, it’s possible that this is what occurred, as about 100,000 people die of pulmonary embolisms in the U.S. every year — more than the sum of those who die of car accidents, AIDS, and breast cancer.

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“The real tragedy of it is that it’s a very treatable disease,” Abrams said. It’s just that too many people are unaware of both the symptoms and risk factors involved. Those who are at heightened risk for DVT include those who have sustained an injury, had recent surgery, or are older, as well as women who are pregnant or on birth control or hormone-replacement therapy — “a whole list of things,” he said.

Symptoms of DVT can include site pain, swelling, warmth, heaviness and redness, and it can then be diagnosed in many ways, including a blood test, a CAT scan, or an ultrasound, Abrams explained. And treatments — including a host of blood thinners or “clot busters,” are extremely effective, he said. If treated, only 1 to 2 percent of clots will turn fatal. If left untreated, on the other hand, that risk shoots up to a 25 to 30 percent chance.

“People have to be aware of the symptoms,” he said, “and the symptoms have to be recognized.”