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.
As Rounds' story shows, "Age does not make a difference" when it comes to DVT risk, Napolitano stressed. However, a previous history of a clot does, so both Rounds and Kazan must remain vigilant to reduce their risk or a future episode.
DVTs can be tough to spot, because their symptoms can feel like so many other ailments, Napolitano said.
"Pain and swelling [in the leg] is definitely a warning sign, possibly cramp," he said. "But you can also have a fairly massive blood clot without any warning signs at all."
With pulmonary thrombosis, "the first symptom is chest pain and shortness of breath," the expert said. "That's when it's traveled to the lung, and that's what the real killer is for these blood clots."
Because of their heightened risk for DVTs and other clots, most patients recovering from orthopedic or other surgeries now routinely receive coumadin or another blood thinner, Napolitano added. "It's pretty much standard," he said.
The best defense against DVTs: Avoid long periods of immobility, which allow blood clots to form in the legs. Regular exercise, moving around, is key, whether it be at home, at the office, or on long drives or flights.
Kazan said she lowers her own risk for recurrence by staying busy, both physically (regular yoga and exercise) and professionally -- she's singing at venues all over the country this summer and working on a number of film projects, including an upcoming film with Adam Sandler and the romantic comedy Beau Jest.
"Just keep moving," Kazan said. "Remember, you have to help your doctor."
There's more on DVTs at the American Heart Association.
SOURCES: Lainie Kazan, actor and singer, Jacksonville, Fla.; Jody Rounds, ICU nurse, Cranford, N.J.; Massimo Napolitano, M.D., chief, vascular surgery, Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, N.J.