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NASCAR driver inspires others to 'never give up'

By Rebecca Angel Baer
updated 8:36 AM EDT, Tue October 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brian Vickers was diagnosed with blood clots in his leg, lungs and fingers
  • The clots kept him out of the race car for almost all the 2010 season
  • Once recovered, Vickers had to fight his way back onto the track full-time
  • Vickers now works with Clot Connect to help raise awareness and funds

(CNN) -- Standing on top of the No. 55 Aarons Dream Machine in victory lane, his fists pumping and the confetti flying, Brian Vickers wasn't just celebrating a victory. He wasn't just celebrating breaking a long losing streak. Vickers was celebrating something much sweeter. Three years earlier he wasn't sure he'd ever race again. In fact, he wasn't sure if he'd ever be healthy again.

If he'd known what to look for, perhaps Vickers would have noticed the warning signs. The normally energetic and very fit 26-year-old was tired. Really tired. He struggled to keep up with a friend on a bike ride. A couple of his fingers turned white from lack of circulation. And then on a trip to Washington, where he was actually supposed to visit the troops at Walter Reed Hospital, he woke up several times in the middle of the night with shortness of breath. Yes, perhaps if he'd known what those symptoms were signs of he might have acted sooner.

But he didn't. Vickers had no idea what was causing all that. It was only after several nudges from his doctors back home and actually reaching the point where he was struggling to catch his breath that Vickers finally went to the emergency room.

"Luckily I got there in time and then once I got in the emergency room it was trying to figure out what was wrong. At first they thought pneumonia, they gave me antibiotics. I was having a hard time getting through the CT scan. Every time I would lay down, my lungs would shut off and I just couldn't breathe," Vickers said.

Eventually they did figure it out. Vickers had DVT or deep vein thrombosis and a pulmonary embolism—a clot in your deep veins. The clots were located in his left leg, lungs and also his fingers—causing his fingers to turn white.

"The ones in the fingers were the big mystery. We couldn't figure how those got there because the way your circulatory system works, it would have had to have gone through my heart to get to my hand and come to find out, I had a hole in my heart between my left and right atrium and that's how they got to my hand. Well, if a clot goes through that hole it has two places it can go, your left hand or your brain. Typically it goes to your brain. So I got very lucky that I didn't have a stroke," Vickers said.

In the prime of his career, having just completed his best season, Vickers was supposed to be a championship contender in 2010. But instead, just months into the year, Vickers underwent surgery to repair his heart and began blood thinners for treatment of the clots. He had an uphill battle to just get out of the woods and get healthy. But then his thoughts turned to his passion. Could he return to racing? Could he continue to chase his dream of becoming a championship winner? At first he was told he might never race again, which was a tough sentiment to swallow. But eventually there seemed to be a bit more discussion and possibility.

"So as the doctor put it, would you rather take the risk of dying from another clot or just potentially an internal injury and bleeding to death, you know, being on blood thinners. They can't say for sure, but he's like it's 50/50, so you just have to pick. And you know my decision was to be off of blood thinners for a lot of reasons, primarily to race," said Vickers.

He followed doctors instructions and didn't rush it. Vickers sat out the remainder of the 2010 season as he rebuilt his strength, monitored by his doctors. But he did get back in the car and pushed all fears out the window.

"I certainly thought about it — the possibility of having another clot -- but that wasn't what I was thinking about when I was driving into turn one at 200 mph."

But even the massive hurdle of recovery wasn't the only one in his path to return to the track. Vickers raced for Red Bull Racing and they had decided to leave the sport — leaving Vickers jobless.

Eventually, Vickers took a gamble and settled on a part-time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. He had other offers for full-time positions but felt this was the right choice for him.

"I wanted to be back so bad but I don't want to be back just for the sake of being in the sport. I wanted to be back to win. So I took a pass and took a chance and then this opportunity came up with MWR and with Aarons," Vickers said

Coming into the next season he again chose to stay with Michael Waltrip Racing.

"There were some opportunities, again decent but not championship caliber teams, to go race full time. But I was so happy with the team that I was with and really felt at home there, with the partners and the team, you know, like Toyota and Aarons, the whole staff at MWR, the culture, and I didn't want to give that up. I'd been around long enough to know how difficult that is to find and it wasn't something I was going to give up lightly, even if it meant racing part time again another year."

His patience paid off. Earlier this season Vickers returned to victory lane and soon after that he accepted a full-time deal for two seasons with MWR. He's back on track—literally and figuratively.

Vickers has had a two-for-one in second chances. He recovered from this near-death medical issue and he's now experiencing a steady professional comeback as well. But Vickers knows it's both luck and hard work that got him here and he also knows there are many others who face similar hardships. He hopes sharing his story helps shine a light on some of these issues for others or simply inspires anyone going through difficult times to "never give up." This is the motto Vickers now lives by.

He has teamed up with a foundation one of his doctors helped create called Clot Connect. Vickers supports it by donating his money, raising awareness for the foundation by putting its logo on his car and holding fundraisers for the group.

"It was an organization I didn't even know of prior to having clots. You know, I didn't even think about blood clots at all. I'd never even thought about it, and who gets blood clots and why? I just never thought it would be something I would have to deal with."

Vickers hopes to help change that and help Clot Connect not only raise money for treatment and prevention but also to educate more people about how warning signs present themselves. He also views this chapter in his life as a learning experience.

"I think anytime you go through a dramatic experience you're gonna learn a lot: personally, professionally, all of the above. You're gonna learn a lot about who you are and how you handle those situations and going through this experience was no exception for me."

"You also learn about who's there for you and your family and what they taught you growing up and never give up is one of the biggest things my parents instilled in me. They supported me through the whole process. And not just pushing me to go back racing, you know, they were just there for me no matter what. They just said we don't care if you ever go back, we don't care what you do, we just want you to be OK and we love you," Vickers continued.

Vickers also noted that one of the harder lessons he learned was that not everyone will always be in your corner. But he feels this is "a blessing in disguise" that no matter the circumstance anyone could relate to. He explained:

"It's kind of clearing out the weeds, so to speak. Because life's too short to have people in your life that aren't truly engaged in your life and support you no matter what. So as difficult as it is going through that experience, once the dust settles you're glad to have that gone, because now you can focus more energy on the people that really matter."

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