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Thoracic outlet syndrome: Why I smile for life

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Throughout my life I have been blessed with many gifts. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a student and an athlete. I have woken up for 17 years now; I have been allowed to breathe and live a new day, every sunrise. While some days I admit that I fail to recognize the significance of this, I have recently have experienced a situation that put my life into perspective. I have been swimming since I was 4, and ever since I can remember, the water has been a huge part of my identity. I have fallen in love with the sport and it has led me to participate in another activity – water polo. My family jokes that I have chlorine in my veins. As a child, up until my recent surgery, I experienced extreme dizzy spells but I attributed them to not taking in enough calories or too much exercise due to every scan or echo on my heart coming back clear. Approximately two years ago, my left hand began to swell to an abnormal size. First, it would only swell after a long practice where I would swim a long distance. Then, the swelling broadened itself to my intake of salty foods. For the last year, my hand stayed puffy and uncomfortable throughout the day; I could not ignore the issue anymore or downplay the side effects that started to affect my practices and my life. Because my mother is an emergency room nurse, she understood the gravity of the situation and scheduled an appointment for me at Texas Children’s.


Meeting with the pediatric microvascular hand surgeon, Dr. Chris Pederson, was one of the greatest decisions my mother and I made. Dr. Pederson potentially saved my life and opened the door to the possibilities of my future dreams. While every test previously done on my body by other doctors came back clear, Dr. Pederson understood that not being able to race at the same level that I previously was able to, almost passing out in the majority of my high school classes and feeling a throbbing heartbeat in my swollen hand should not be ignored. Dr. Pederson not only listened to me, but he fought for my life and my health. He took a closer look at the tests and came to the conclusion that I had decreased blood flow to my left arm and identified that I had a form of thoracic outlet syndrome or TOS. In my case, my axillary vein, a major vein of the arm that carries blood to the heart, was being occluded. Dr. Pederson realized this vein was being shut off somehow in my body and he scheduled surgery immediately. During surgery, a nerve was found pressed up against my vein occluding approximately 70 percent of the blood flow. Even though it is thought that this has never been observed before my case, Dr. Pederson managed to get me out of the operating room with only 20 to 30 percent of my vein being occluded, a much skinnier hand and the elimination of dizzy spells. I was saved from potentially experiencing a heart attack, or another life-threatening emergency later on in life, due to a blood clot. Because of this experience and the gratitude that I express towards Dr. Pederson, I have watched the rekindling of my passion. I am now back in the water, I am able to connect with my teammates and I feel like Angelica again. That tiny scar in my armpit reminds me of miracles, of those who have a heart to help others and of second awakenings. Every time I gaze upon that little mark I smile; I smile for oxygen, for blood and for health. But most importantly, I smile for life.

Angelica Aulbaugh, patient