THURSDAY, May 24 (HealthDay News) -- Thirty years ago, a tiny blood clot in her leg could have ended the life of celebrated actress and singer Lainie Kazan.
"I had broken a foot and was in a cast and headed to Australia for work," said Kazan, now in her mid-60s and the star of dozens of films and television shows, including My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Beaches and Will & Grace.
Waiting in a wheelchair at the airport, Kazan felt what she thought were the symptoms of the flu. She called her doctor, asking him if he could meet her and give her a flu shot.
"He said 'Lainie, you're not going anywhere.' He was very savvy and diagnosed me on the phone," Kazan said.
That quick thinking probably saved her life, since the clot, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), had already moved from Kazan's leg to her lung, forming a potentially lethal blockage called a pulmonary embolism.
She ended up in the hospital on the critical list for more than a month.
Nowadays, the ever-busy performer is acting in a whole new role as spokeswoman, warning Americans that DVT can happen to anyone, at any age.
"I truly could've died from this condition if I had gotten on that plane," she said. "DVT affects up to 2 million people each year in the United States, and up to 300,000 people die from pulmonary embolisms -- that's more than breast cancer and AIDS combined."
Kazan, who's been nominated for Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe awards, is headlining a special education campaign called DVT Blood Clots: Know The Stats. Know Your Risk, sponsored by drug maker Sanofi-Aventis. To get a better understanding of their risk, "people can go to the campaign's Web site, www.dvt.net, or call 1-866-MY-DVT-RISK, or just talk to their physician," she said. "I just think it's very important for people to know their risk."
Experts stress that DVTs -- which are strongly linked to prolonged immobility -- can strike anyone.
"People who are most at risk are patients that have undergone surgery, especially orthopedic surgery -- hip and joint replacements. Or any kind of abdominal surgery, pelvic surgery," explained Dr. Massimo Napolitano, chief of vascular surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center, N.J.
He said that while passengers on long-haul flights need to be aware that sitting still for hours can boost their DVT risk (so-called "economy-class syndrome"), flying isn't a big risk factor overall. "Considering the number of these long flights that people are traveling on nowadays, it's something that we don't see very often," he said.
But in-flight DVTs can happen, as Jody Rounds, a 35-year-old ICU nurse from Cranford, N.J., knows all too well.
Seven years ago, she was midway through a flight from Honolulu to Newark, N.J., when her calf cramped up.
"I thought it was a Charley-horse, so I decided to do a massage -- and I ended up massaging that DVT right up into my lungs," she said. Because of her age and her high level of fitness, Rounds didn't really consider that she could have a DVT. But after getting off the plane, Rounds said she felt short of breath and, just to be sure, checked with doctors at Overlook Hospital, the Summitt, N.J., hospital where she works.
"I went to the ER, and that's where they figured out what had happened to me," Rounds said. She spent the next 5 days as an inpatient, as physicians used blood thinners to dissolve the dangerous clot in her lungs.