After every surgery, a team puts out a press release that usually includes the phrase "successful." The joke goes that a surgeon says an operation is a success when a patient wakes up and the sponge count is right. That isn't far from the truth, but the case of Anderson Varejao reminds us just how dangerous surgery can be, even for a top athlete at a top hospital.
Varejao was determined to be out for the season after developing a pulmonary embolism (or blood clot) in his lung. This is thought to be a complication after surgery to repair a strained quadriceps muscle. According to Dr. Clark Fuller, the director of thoracic surgery at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, this is a very unusual situation. "He's a young, relatively healthy athlete," Dr. Fuller told me, "so you have to wonder how this happened. It could be the surgery, or flights, or some underlying condition."
Dr. Fuller explained that a person in Varejao's situation would miss three to six months due to his continued need for anticlotting medication. "While he's on this, a relatively trivial injury could end up very serious. He could bleed into a joint space or something like a minor head injury could get life threatening. You just can't play while on this type of medication."
Varejao was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic after the team's medical staff detected the embolism. He will stay for several days for observation, as the condition can be deadly if not treated properly. Varejao will undergo a regimen of anticoagulants to keep the clot from thickening and causing further damage.
According to the Cleveland Clinic's own site, the post-surgical period is one of the most dangerous times for developing a pulmonary embolism. While Varejao is in most danger now and until the medication takes effect, it will be months before he's completely released from medical care. The issue here is that anyone, athlete or not, is in danger of serious complications or even death, if the clot moves or blocks one of the major arteries.
Another major risk is flight, due to the pressurization and depressurization necessary. That change in atmospheric pressure can move the clot. Airlines often warn passengers now to keep moving due to increased awareness about deep vein thrombosis, a related condition. Current guidelines suggest that a person with this type of condition would not be cleared to fly for up to six months.
With proper treatment, there is a high likelihood that Varejao will have no further complications and will return to play next season. With the extra time for his thigh to heal—he was previously expected to miss about six weeks—the Cavs big man should return without issue to his normal level and style of play, though it should be noted that his recent career includes a lot of time lost to injury.