In the days leading up to the Oct. 18-20 NASCAR race weekend at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway race weekend, Sprint Cup and Nationwide series driver Brian Vickers announced that he would be sidelined for the remainder of the 2013 season because of an issue with a blood clot in his right leg. Vickers also missed most of the 2010 race season for similar health issues that also included heart surgery.
Vickers was at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last weekend, and while there, he discussed his health and being out for the rest of the season. Here’s a partial transcript:
How are you feeling?
VICKERS: “I feel like I could drive a race car, I just can’t. I feel great. Still training, still exercising — I miss being here, I wish I was here today. All in all, I feel good. I’ve told many people this since everything happened. I can’t complain. I’ve got a great life and family and friends. I’m frustrated and I’ve been bummed since obviously all this happened again. I’m just kind of looking forward. Things happen in life — that’s part of it. You just keep fighting and have faith. That’s all you can really do. I’m going to be out for three months and back in time for Daytona to race for a championship.”
Have doctors explained why this happened and how long you will have to deal with it?
VICKERS: “The answer is yes, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about that and I’ve met with some of the best doctors that I could find again — a lot of the same and some new guys as well. I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with Serena Williams and what happened to her, but it was essentially the exact same thing. After the crash at Bristol, I had a mid-foot sprain and I was wearing a boot to kind of immobilize my right ankle to help with that foot sprain and that boot is what caused the clot. Pretty much right where the boot kind of constricted my calf. We know what caused it. I think the good news for me in both situations — the first one and this one is that there were specific events — kind of the perfect storm so to speak that created the clots. Because of that, I’ve never spontaneously produced a clot at random. That creates a completely different situation than someone who is just throwing clots all the time randomly. Obviously, having had a clot twice you can’t argue against the fact that for some reason or another I’m more prone than someone else. The things that have caused my clots are very non-factors that can create clots. That boot for instance. Unfortunately it just got me again. Going forward, pretty much every doctor I’ve met with has pretty much had the exact same conclusion, which is three months of anti-coagulation and then you’re off. Whether I race or not, whether I decide to go racing or not is kind of irrelevant, the decision would still be the same. I could certainly choose to go on blood thinners the rest of my life and at this point the doctor could say it could go either way pretty much like last time, it’s kind of up to you. Both carry their own risk. At my age being so young being on blood thinners the rest of my life carries its own risk. Being off of them, statistically speaking, in medicine it’s always a bit of an art more than a science. They’re going to throw out some percentages and some numbers and they are very vague about their answers and they don’t really know and no one can predict the future, but essentially the risk is about the same either way give or take a little bit. For me, obviously my passion and my love is racing and I want to win a championship at the Sprint Cup level. That’s part of it, but it’s more than just that. For me, I don’t want to be on blood thinners the rest of my life even if I’m not racing. That wouldn’t be my decision. I like to snow ski, I like to ride motorcycles, I like to skydive, I like to do a lot of things that most doctors probably wouldn’t agree with period. But that’s me, that’s who I am and that’s what I like to do. My choice is always going to be leaning towards being off of blood thinners regardless of racing. As long as it’s a healthy thing to do. If a doctor tells me unequivocally you need to be on blood thinners then that’s what I’ll do. No doctor has told me that. Both of these instances were caused by a specific event. This one was caused by the boot that I was wearing that immobilized my right foot and right calf and fortunately I was able to catch it early enough. Unfortunately, it took me out of the car for three months. It couldn’t have happened at a better time. If this happened, if I found this in November or December, it would pretty much wreck all of next year. When it happened, I was fortunate that I’m going to be off in January some time and be able to still get some testing in and then go race for a championship.”
How did the heart surgery impact clot production?
VICKERS: “The heart surgery had more to do with where the clots go if they were to form than preventing a clot. The hole in my heart last time between the left and right atrium was to prevent a clot forming in my legs going through my heart and going to my brain. It was more about preventing potential stroke risk. That risk has been closed, that door has been closed. There are two different blood systems so my chance of having a stroke is no more than yours. My chance of having a clot, again based on percentages, is slightly higher just because I’ve had two is what they would tell you. Not significantly. Both of my clots were produced by specific events that they know cause clots. The right boot I was wearing for a month and a half — that’s the same boot that caused the clot in Serena Williams, that’s the same boot that caused clots in people all the time. If you have some type of injury in your legs and they’re immobilized, that is very common. It’s not like I spontaneously a clot in the last three years. I haven’t produced a clot in the last three years other than from that boot. Again, we’re getting into the art not the science of it. We’re just kind of guessing at this point, but from a doctors perspective this last incident was caused by something they know causes clots or what can cause a clot. That’s very different from had I been just jogging one day and produced a clot.”
Do you ever wonder why these things happen to you?
VICKERS: “I think I look at it more like, that’s life. That’s just part of life. Everyone in this room probably has some type of setback at some point in their life. I’ve had a lot of them, but I’ve also had a lot of good things happen. I try to really focus on those and I’m very thankful to have the family and friends that I have — I have an amazing wife and I just couldn’t be happier. I’m with a great team, I’ve been able to come back after the first incident and win a race. That was huge for me personally. I still want to win a championship. That’s kind of the reason I came back. I look at this incident and I think to myself, this kind of sucks, but if it would have happened a little sooner then we may not have got the deal done to race for a championship next year. If it happened a little bit later, I would not have been able to race for a championship later. I guess that’s maybe just me trying to spin it to make the most of it, but that’s all you can really do in life. You just make the most of the cards you’re dealt. Unfortunately, I’ve been dealt some bad cards at times, but no one should feel sorry for me. I’ve been dealt some great cards too. Like I said, I think in most of the areas of life that matter most I’m very thankful. I’m surrounded by great family and friends. I am healthy. Obviously I have a health issue right now, but it’s been managed, it’s been taken care of, it’s not life-threatening at the moment. It is what it is, you just have to keep going.”
Do you have to be more careful of how you deal with injuries in the future?
VICKERS: “I think you have to look at those situations moving forward a little differently. The truth is I probably should have looked at the last one differently and maybe this could have been prevented. I think that so much time had gone by that I just didn’t think about it. Speaking to the doctor, I don’t know if they would have done anything different either. They felt like they knew the cause for the first one and that was the end of it and you just go on. The reality is that any time someone has an incident like that, any time someone is wearing a boot that immobilizes their foot, any time someone is wearing a cast or breaks their foot they’re chance of creating a clot go up exponentially. It doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone in this room, if you’re in that situation your chance of having a clot goes up tremendously. Obviously, that goes for me as well. Me and my doctors just need to be more on top of it and more proactive in those situations. Hopefully that doesn’t arise again, but if it does then we’ll just have to address it accordingly.”
What caused you to get checked and what blood thinner are you on?
VICKERS: “I was actually having a little bit of pain in my right calf like a knot so to speak and then I just noticed it wasn’t going away and I already had the boot off for awhile. At first I thought maybe I just bruised my calf or something wearing the boot and that was a bit optimistic. It didn’t go away so I went to get it checked out and I had a slight swelling in my right calf. At that point I just didn’t have a good feeling about it. I called the doctor and went and got an ultrasound. That’s how we found it. The medicine I’m on now is actually Xarelto, which is phenomenal. It is the new blood thinner that just came out. Coumadin did me well last time, but it’s a very finicky drug and it’s not good for you. At the end of the day it was originally rat poison. I’m not kidding, it was actually rat poison. That is what Coumadin is. The window in which it works is very narrow so you have to constantly take blood tests and try to keep it in that window. The stuff I’m on now — Xarelto, I take 15 mg in the morning and at night and then eventually I’ll switch to 20 mg once a day and then that’s it. I go live my life and I don’t have to monitor or check it. No more blood tests, which is great. Granted I used to hate needles. After spending a month in the hospital, they don’t really bother me that much anymore. I still don’t like them so not having to get my blood drawn is fantastic. I think from all the research that’s been done and my personal experience so far is that it’s a better drug — less side effects and less problems.”
Were you planning to attend the test at Texas Motor Speedway?
VICKERS: “I was hoping it was a routine check-up and I was going to drive straight to the test, but come to find out it was not.”
What keeps you out of the car?
VICKERS: “It’s not the clot and it’s not that I can’t race on blood thinners it’s just that I can’t crash. As long as I can promise my doctors that I will not crash then they’re fine with me racing. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of moving parts in a car that I can’t control and 42 competitors that I can’t control. I can’t firmly commit to that so he would rather me not race. The risk is not even so much external injury like a cut or something, it’s really more of an internal injury. They wouldn’t be able to stop the bleeding. Your body’s ability to form clots, which is if you have an internal injury especially in the brain they wouldn’t be able to stop it until the medicine wore off. That’s really the risk, unfortunately. I feel great. Other than that, I could be in a race car driving. It wouldn’t affect my ability to drive.”
Did you have to convince Michael Waltrip Racing and Aaron’s to stay with you?
VICKERS: “Of course they asked if I’m going to be able to race next year. If that’s your question, I think they’ve been very supportive through the whole process. They wanted to know why my answer was yes obviously. It wasn’t an inquisition. It didn’t feel that way at all, but they didn’t have to ask. I provided everything for them. I have nothing to hide. As soon as this happened they were my first call. I actually went by the shop that day and spent some time with them. I offered for them to speak to my doctors. For those guys this is something new and for a lot of people it is. I don’t think the average person realizes the risk that they all walk around with for producing clots. That’s part of the reason why I’ve spent so much time supporting clotconnect.org is so people understand the risk and what to do and what the symptoms are and what the signs are and when to go get checked out. Because of that education and because of spending time on clotconnect.org and spending time with the doctors last time, I was able to catch this one very early. It’s a very small incident, localized that I can address very quickly as opposed to what happened last time. For them, I think it was kind of going through that same process, but I offered all the information I could and offered them to speak to my doctors, which they did briefly. At this point, basically what I’m doing is three months of anti-coagulation and then I’m off. It doesn’t really matter what happens, even if the clot is still there in three months time I would still come off anti-coagulation. It doesn’t really affect it. Pretty much once the clot forms or hardens, it stays there. Granted if it’s gone that’s great, but it really has no bearing on what’s next. When the doctors say that I’ve got three months of blood thinners then I’m off, they don’t mean I have three months of blood thinners and then let’s check it again and let’s see. They mean, I’ve got three months of blood thinners then I’m off. Unless something new happened, then that’s pretty much what would happen whether I went racing or not. There’s no known benefit to staying on blood thinners past that regardless of what the clot in my calf does.”
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR