Al Roker is officially back at work after taking two months off to deal with serious health issues. Roker was hospitalized for blood clots (deep vein thrombosis) in November 2022, and is revealing details of his treatment at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. "I lost half my blood. They were trying to figure out where it was," he says. "He is a living, breathing miracle," says Roker's wife Deborah. "He really is, and I have to say — I'm not overstating it, I don't think — Al was a very, very, very sick man. And I think most people did not know that. He was a medical mystery for a couple of weeks. It was the most tumultuous, frightening journey we have ever been on."
Roker's medical team discovered he had two bleeding ulcers, and he ended up needing seven-hour surgery on his colon and duodenum (a part of the small intestine) as well as having his gallbladder removed. In true Roker fashion, he can joke about the situation now. "I went in for one operation, I got four free," Roker says. "I really do feel good. I'm sure I'm going to collapse like a stone after this is over because this is the first work I've done. It's been a journey."
Roker says he wasn't aware of the extent of his illness. "Thank God for Deborah," he says. "She basically shielded me from a lot of this. I had no idea how sick I was. I am a living example of ignorance is bliss. … I was able to put all my energy into just recuperating because I didn't know how bad off I was." It turns out his medical team were deeply concerned about the state of his health. "(We) were extraordinarily concerned about Al," says his gastroenterologist Dr. Felice H. Schnoll-Sussman. "Extraordinarily concerned. He had a life-threatening experience. I mean, there's just no doubt about that."
According to the CDC, 900,000 people are affected by DVT every year. Here are the warning signs of blood clots, according to experts.
Leg pain that doesn't go away could be a sign of a dangerous blood clot. "The area affected by the blood clot may become swollen and painful, and possibly turn red as the normal flow of blood is blocked," says Quratulain Syed, MD. You may also develop edema, which is the build-up of fluid in the skin tissues surrounding the clot. If the clot is somewhere other than your arm or leg, there may be no physical signs of DVT."
Dr. Syed says approximately one in 1,000 people develop DVT each year. "Older persons and people who are overweight are most susceptible. Other common risk factors include an injury or blow to the body, prolonged immobility including long air flights or car travels, and serious illnesses such as congestive heart failure, stroke, cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease. Women taking estrogen either in the form of birth control pills or post-menopausal therapy may be at increased risk. Some genetic blood clotting disorders can also lead to frequent blood clots. You should ask your doctor about your risk for DVT."
Leg swelling is a common symptom of DVT, doctors say. "About 70% of all patients develop swelling, which is the top warning sign of DVT," says vascular surgeon Obinna Nwobi, MD. "If your DVT is in your thigh or calf, you'll only have swelling in the affected leg. However, if the blood clot is in your pelvis, you can develop swelling in both legs."
"There are effective treatments for a blood clot in the leg, most notably blood thinners, which hinder clotting ability while they're being used," says Vikalp Jain, MD, vascular surgeon at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. "Seeking medical help early when you think that you may have a blood clot is always the right decision, even if it turns out to be nothing. It's better to be safe than sorry when pulmonary embolism could be a possibility."
Unusually warm spots on the skin could be a sign of DVT. "Common symptoms are swelling of the leg, pain or tenderness in the leg, increased warmth in the area of the leg that is swollen or painful, and red or discolored skin in the area of the leg that is swollen or painful," says Antonios P. Gasparis, MD.
"Most people are unaware of deep venous thrombosis (DVT) and its possible consequences. DVT is a blood clot in a deep vein, usually in the legs. It is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. These blood clots can be dangerous if they break off and travel to the lungs. When this happens, it causes a serious, potentially life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism."
Studies show varicose veins could be an early warning sign of blood clots. "The most common question from a varicose vein patient in the vein clinic is: 'Will varicose vein bring any health risk for me?'" says Dr. Shyueluen Chang, a phlebologist and dermatologist at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taoyuan, Taiwan.
Dr. Chang's research showed that in adults diagnosed with varicose veins, there was an "increased risk of deep vein thrombosis in both women and men, [yet] this association is stronger in men than in women. We believe that varicose veins are not merely a cosmetic or symptomatic concern… patients with varicose veins deserve careful monitoring and early evaluation."
"A common complication of DVT is post-thrombotic syndrome," says Dr. Syed. "Up to 50% of people who have had DVT may develop this disorder, which causes long-lasting leg pain and swelling that worsens throughout the day. The skin surrounding the swollen area may thicken and become darker as well. If left untreated, post-thrombotic syndrome can lead to sores that do not heal, and chronic pain while walking. If you have post-thrombotic syndrome, your doctor may be able to prescribe elastic compression stockings and supervised exercise programs for improvement of the swelling."
So how is DVT treated? "The drugs used to treat a DVT are called anticoagulants or 'blood thinners'," says Dr Syed. "They help prevent new clots from forming and stop the growth of the clots you already have. Based on the extent of the DVT and other medical problems (including cancer or kidney problems), some people may need to stay in the hospital to receive a blood thinning medication by intravenous infusion or injections under the skin for the first few days. After that, they may switch to an oral medication such as warfarin (Coumadin). There are also newer oral medications such as rivaroxaban and apixaban that can be prescribed without the need for infusions or injections, as long as you do not have any major medical complications. Most DVTs are treated for 3-6 months. Some people who may be high risk for future DVTs may need to stay on blood thinning medication for the rest of their lives. Be sure to let all your healthcare providers know if you are taking a blood thinner."