By Jules Jenners
It started as a typical Sunday in the fall. Football on the TV, relaxing but with one noticeable difference. I had felt some shortness of breath throughout the day when I suddenly began to feel breathless. Totally breathless.
While the ambulance was on its way, I told my girlfriend in between breaths to tell my adult daughter that I loved her and that it would be OK.
I didn’t know what was happening to me.
The ride in the ambulance was seemingly forever, but they did have oxygen on me. That helped until we were able to get to the emergency room where the medical staff used a BIPAP machine to force air into and out of my lungs regulating my breathing.
I asked what had happened to me. The doctor said it was a flare-up of my COPD.
Ten years ago, I was told I had COPD — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I didn’t really think about it. I thought it was something like a bad cough or being a little short of breath on occasion.
Was I ever wrong.
For the first decade after diagnosis I didn’t really notice anything. I was also told I had asthma and that I needed to use an inhaler. The doctor gave me a daily inhaler to use for the COPD and an emergency inhaler (albuterol) for sudden breathing problems. Frankly, the daily inhaler did little to nothing for me. I had used it that day but the flare-up occurred anyway.
I started seeing a pulmonologist. We talked about my condition and he prescribed a new inhaler, one with three different medications in it. He also prescribed pulmonary rehab to help strengthen my lungs.
That was the beginning of my journey to understand and live with this disease. Now it was time to learn more.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, COPD is a group of diseases that cause chronic breathing difficulties. They include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Approximately 16 million people in the US have the disease.
Millions more have it and don’t know it.
There is no cure.
The disease is ranked in stages from one to four. Stage one is mild; you might not even notice you have it.
Stage two brings on more coughing and shortness of breath while doing everyday things like light exercise or housework.
By stage three you’re in the severe category of the disease. Your breathing capacity is significantly lower and daily chores may become impossible. Flare-ups are also more common.
At stage four you are at very severe or end-stage COPD. You’ll have more frequent flare-ups and one could turn out to be fatal. Your breathing is likely labored all the time and you’re probably on supplemental oxygen.
What are the causes of this illness? Smoking is one cause along with environmental factors like pollution and, yes, secondhand smoke. It can also be hereditary.
There are steroidal treatments for COPD. They are usually inhaled at least once a day. There are also rescue inhalers such as albuterol which act quickly to open up the lungs.
For the most severe cases doctors may prescribe a lung transplant or other surgery that blocks off part of the lungs so less air is needed to inflate the lungs to their fullest.
What’s my life like now? I’m a lot more careful about potential problems related to my breathing. I work to avoid cigarette smoke and other pollutants that can bring on problems. I also try to maintain an exercise program to help my lungs and overall health.
The American Lung Association says I live in an area that ranks high for cleaner air. (www.lung.org/research/sota/city-rankings/cleanest-cities) That’s a good thing.
COPD is a struggle for me and I do worry that I could have another flare-up. It’s certainly possible, but I go about my life as normally as I can. I can’t do all the things I used to such as long hikes or even short walks sometimes, but I don’t let the disease control me. With the proper care you may be able to live more freely, too.