As It Happens

Boston doctor saves professor's life by spotting blood clot symptoms during lecture

A cardiologist was attending an ethics lecture when she noticed the professor showed signs of a potentially fatal blood clot. Her decision to speak up saved the woman's life.
Dr. Iris Jaffe saved ethics professor Jill Brown's life by noticing her health symptoms during class. (Tufts Medical Center / Jill Brown)

This story was originally published on Sept. 12, 2017.

Doctors are trained to always speak up if they see something.

That's exactly what Dr. Iris Jaffe did when she attended an ethics lecture in June by professor Jill Brown at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

Jaffe, a cardiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, was trying to listen to the lecture, but became distracted and alarmed by what looked like serious symptoms exhibited by Brown.

I felt a lot of hesitation about approaching her ... on the other hand, I was worried for her survival.- Dr. Iris Jaffe

Brown had opened her lecture by explaining that she was on crutches because of minor foot surgery six weeks earlier. Jaffe noticed that even though Brown was sitting, she was short of breath and having trouble finishing her sentences.

Jaffe's concern grew when she looked down at Brown's leg and noticed it was swollen up to the knee. She became increasingly alarmed when she saw, from her seat three rows back, that the veins in Brown's neck were bulging.

Jaffe told As It Happens host Carol Off what happened next. Here is part of their conversation.

Did you know the professor that was giving the lecture?

No, not at all. And I was not there as a physician. I was there as a student in the class. And I knew nothing about her except for her credentials for teaching and that she had mentioned at the beginning of the lecture that she had foot surgery a few weeks ago.

So how difficult was it for you to approach her about your concerns?

On the one hand, I felt a lot of hesitation about approaching her because I'm not her physician, she had not shared this information with me willingly or asked for my opinion. But, on the other hand, I was worried for her survival.


And what did you do?

Luckily, at the next break I found her by herself.

I went up to her and said, "Professor, I have an ethical dilemma. Can I run it by you?"

And she said, "Sure." She was kind of excited about it.

And that's when I said, "I think you might have a blood clot in your lungs and I think you really need  to seek medical help right away."

And what did she say?

I think she was very surprised at first ... but she had a lot of questions about my concerns.

She was very grateful, immediately, so that made me feel better about the decision I made to talk to her about it.

So I told her she should go to the emergency room immediately because pulmonary embolism, a blood clot to the lungs, can be lethal.

This must have plagued you. How did you hear from her again?

I was really worried about her on the weekend ... and I decided I was going to try to reach out to her on Monday. But then on Sunday I got an email entitled: "Thank you for saving my life. Really."

In it, she explained to me that she had gone to the emergency room and been diagnosed with a blood clot in her leg and in both lungs.

What  did they say at the hospital about how timely it was for her to appear?

She had written to me in the email that the emergency room doctor, her primary care physician and the lung doctor all said it was really lucky ... and that this woman probably saved your life.

With files from The Associated Press. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.