How a pulmonary embolism changed the Chargers' Russell Okung

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COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Offensive tackle Russell Okung struggled through a routine offseason workout for the Los Angeles Chargers on the final day of May. He couldn't explain why.

"It was during a normal two-minute drill -- something we do all the time in OTAs," Okung said. "I felt some shortness of breath and really couldn't get my bearings. And it sort of was lasting throughout the practice and throughout the day. And I said to myself, 'Man, I must be out of shape. Something must be off with me.'"

Okung was right: Something was wrong. His first inclination was he had the flu. However, his wife, Samar, eight months pregnant with their son, Cairo, was concerned enough that she pressured her husband to see the team doctor the next day.

"I was like, 'Hey, I'm just going to go sleep downstairs on the couch and maybe sweat this thing off, take some antibiotics that are left over in the pantry,'" Okung said. "And she comes up to me and says, 'Russ, I think you're acting a little odd. I usually wouldn't press you on this, but I think you should go see the team doctor."

It's a decision that likely saved Okung's life. After being examined by the team doctor, Okung was told to go to urgent care for further evaluation.

After a full battery of tests and blood work, doctors determined Okung had suffered a pulmonary embolism caused by blood clots in his left leg and both lungs. Doctors told Okung he might never play football again.

"They said, 'You're not leaving this hospital anytime soon,'" said Okung, who stayed at the medical facility for three days. "And that's when it kind of settled into me that this is serious. I don't think I was still afraid then, but I was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to tell my wife.' The last thing I want to do, especially when we’re less than a month from having a baby, is to put her in any state that could cause her complications with the birth."

'A second chance at life'

Pulmonary embolisms occur when an artery in the lungs is blocked by a blood clot, which could lead to shortness of breath and, in some cases, death.

According to the American Thoracic Society, pulmonary embolism has earned the reputation of a silent killer because less than half of patients who die of pulmonary embolism were diagnosed with the condition prior to death.

Okung said he did his research, finding a doctor who specialized in the condition.

"He told me, ‘Congratulations,'" Okung said. "And I'm like, 'Whoa, what do you mean?' And he said, ‘Congratulations, you have a second chance at life.'

"He said there's been so many people that's come through this office, and he's looked people in the eye and had people literally dropped down dead. He's checked on them, left the room and came back, and they died."

After his diagnosis, Okung went on blood thinners to help dissipate the blood clots. Ultimately, Okung had a decision to make -- retire or attempt a comeback once he was healthy enough to play.

"There was a lot of prayer, a lot of conversations," Okung said. "A lot of debate, but at the end of the day, I believe when you start things, you finish them. I made a commitment, and if the doctors could give me any hope or understanding that I could come back and not be harming myself, and we could create a schedule of monitoring me throughout the seasons in the future and everything looks good, then I could continue to play."

Okung reached out to other NFL players with experience with pulmonary embolisms, finding out the condition was prevalent among linemen because of their increased weight and the amount of heavy pounding they experience.

During training camp and the first part of the regular season, Okung worked on the side to regain his fitness level. He was placed on the non-football illness list for the first six weeks of the season.

Okung said he looks to his wife and 5-month-old son for inspiration.

"I had this vision of me coming back and doing what we needed to do," Okung said. "I just didn't want to give up on it, and it's kind of one of those things that kept me going. Especially with the birth of my son, I wanted to be able to tell him that his dad overcame the situation in which the odds were against him, he was committed to his faith and his family and to continue to create a future for them, persevered and overcame it to come back and do something he loves to do. And that was just as important to me."

Okung said the event changed him and his perspective on playing in the NFL.

"It's interesting when you face your own mortality," Okung said. "There’s an old scripture in the Bible that says, 'Teach us the number of our days.' And it's kind of prophetic, because if we can get a better sense of our death or the sort of brevity that we have from day to day in our lives, it puts a lot of things in perspective.

"So when I see the game, I more see the opportunities to be around my favorite people. People that I see as my extended family. I love what I do, and I don't want to waste any time doing what I don't love to do. ... I just want to enjoy this, love it and put my all into it. I respect it because it's done so many things for me in my life and for my family."

Happy to be back

Finally healthy, Okung's return helped solidify an offensive line that has lost center Mike Pouncey and guard Forrest Lamp to season-ending injuries. Okung's play helped improve a leaky line that at times struggled to protect quarterback Philip Rivers.

"He had a great approach and I'm happy to see him healthy," Rivers said. "Besides the fact that it's nice to have him out there playing football with us, the fact that he's healthy feels good. It's awesome."

Since returning from the non-football injury list in Week 8, Okung has started five games and the Chargers are 3-2 in those contests. The Bolts' pressure allowed rate since Okung's return is 24%, No. 6 in the NFL.

"Just to have him back and what he went through, it's an incredible story," said fellow offensive lineman Michael Schofield III, who has played with Okung for four years, including time the two spent together with the Denver Broncos. "You're talking about someone who could have died, and now he's playing next to you on the O-line, which is crazy to think about. It's a wild ride he went through, for sure, and we're all very happy to have him back."

Okung, 32, has a year left on a four-year, $53 million contract he signed with the Chargers in 2017. Okung is scheduled to make a base salary of $13 million in 2020. However, he has not considered whether he will play beyond this season.

"I just want to deal with the now," Okung said. "I don't want to get too far into the future. I think right now I've got today, and I just want to enjoy it. I don't want to get too far in something that is absolutely out of my control.

"That's one of the biggest things that I kind of picked up. Stay in the present. Not just stay in the now, but appreciate it. Appreciate being able to walk around, and do the simple things. Going out and being spontaneous and doing certain things because it's not always like that. They say health is wealth, and it truly is."