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COPD – It can take your breath away

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If this story can help one person decide to stop smoking, or one person to stop using chemicals in their home or yard, or one person to change their unhealthy lifestyle, or see a doctor for untreated breathing problems; then Nancy’s story will have been worth writing.

By Angela Carmen Posted May 18, 2010

copdCOPD (Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease) kills more than 100,000 Americans a year and is the 4th leading cause of death in the United States. According to one source more than 12 million Americans have COPD and another 12 million may have COPD but not realize it.

With numbers this large we sometimes forget that each represents a real person who loves and is loved. This is the story of one such person and what I’ve learned about COPD.

Our friend and family member, Nancy K. Carlson passed away on March 29th of respiratory failure. Nancy had been diagnosed some years earlier with Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease (COPD). It was this disease, coupled with past debilitating lung infections, that took her life.

Nancy’s life was filled with the love of her husband Eric, her family, and countless friends. She was abundantly vibrant, which she demonstrated in living life to the fullest and as a talented and accomplished artist. She was spiritual, outgoing, a gracious hostess, always laughing with, and at, life. She took her last breath as she napped early that afternoon; she was 70 years of age.

About 10 days before her death, Nancy was ambulanced to the hospital with an undetermined infection. She had experienced sudden and unexpected breathing congestion and began running a high temperature with severe chills. It was such a shock, as she had been in seemingly great health prior to this night.

In past years she fought off several bouts of pneumonia, which we learned weakened her lungs and increased the scarring and blockage of her breathing passages. Thirty years ago she beat her smoking habit. Over her life Nancy would have been subjected to the affects of second hand smoke; at parties, family events, restaurants and a myriad of other places where smoking was and is allowed. She grew up in a small Oregon mill town, where the air was often filled with the residue of wood and chemical smoke (pre-regulation days of emission control). She lived for many years in the Willamette Valley of Oregon noted for its early years of uncontrolled field burning, and mills, adding to the negative impact on air quality. As an artist, she would have been exposed to a variety of chemicals in the paints and cleaners. In her home, she would have exposed herself to a variety of chemical, caustic, and scent infused household cleaning products and air fresheners. Nancy recalled two times, years ago, when she developed lung distress following the use of ammonia while cleaning. She often lived in a desert climate where the high winds can carry a variety of emissions, field fertilizers, and other toxic chemicals in the blowing sand and air. Any, some, or all, of these things may have led to the continued weakening of her lung capacity and development of COPD. We will never know what caused her condition. We only know that COPD has taken her from us.

Nancy recalled two times, years ago, when she developed lung distress following the use of ammonia while cleaning.

According to the National Institute of Health: “COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. ‘Progressive’ means the disease gets worse over time.”

“COPD can cause coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms.”

“Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust, also may contribute to COPD.”

The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute states: “Also known by other names, such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, COPD is now the 4th leading cause of death in the United States and also causes long-term disability.”

“The number of people who have COPD is on the rise — more than 12 million are currently diagnosed with it. And it is estimated that another 12 million may have COPD but not realize it.”

Nancy was placed in a regular room for the first few days of her hospital stay while the doctors worked to determine the specific cause of her infection. Many tests later she was moved to ICU. In ICU the attending specialist said that Nancy would not be leaving the hospital until she could breathe on her own, or aided by portable oxygen.

Nancy spent nearly a week in ICU. All of her test and medical options were carefully explained to her. She chose not to have invasive testing done, due to the high risk potential of being placed on an oxygen ventilator for the rest of her days and based on her own wishes. In the hopeful event that she might be able to return home, Nancy was told of the lifestyle changes that she would need to make to reduce her exposure to lung irritants. When we asked for a copy of what those specific lung irritants and lifestyle changes would be, we learned that no list was available. We took it upon ourselves to research COPD and what options we might have in the hopeful event we might bring Nancy home.

When we asked for a copy of what those specific lung irritants and lifestyle changes would be, we learned that no list was available.

It was easy to search online for COPD information and support groups, lists of household chemical substitutions, COPD statistics, and the do and don’ts of living with COPD. These are just a few of the many beneficial sites found online: Eartheasy.com provides a list for Non-Toxic Household Cleaners; About.com also provides suggestions for using natural ingredients to make home cleaners. The database search of the NIH, the Mayo Clinic and The University of Maryland Medical Center offers guidelines for COPD lifestyle changes; The American Lung Association is a valuable resource for pamphlets and information on a variety of lung diseases. Most importantly, the website smokefree.gov; provides information on how to stop smoking.

Nancy was moved from ICU to a private room where she continued oxygen treatment to sustain her breathing. At this point she was using 20%, sometimes less, of her own lung capacity to breathe. With each and every breath she provided us words of love, memories, wishes, jokes, laughter, and desires. Nancy gave up precious moments of breathing to give of herself. During her less than two week hospitalization she wrote copious notes to her family, her grandchildren, her friends and some she felt she needed to advise or console. Dr. Nancy (Chieh) Lin said of Nancy on the very morning of the day we would lose her, “I have never dealt with a patient at this stage who remains in such control and is able to make her own decisions.”

We are grateful to all the doctors, nurses, specialists and staff of the Yuma Regional Medical Center for their professional and gracious care of Nancy.

COPD cannot be cured, but it can be prevented. If this story can help one person decide to stop smoking, or not start; or one person to stop using chemicals in their home or yard; or one person to change their unhealthy lifestyle, or see a doctor for untreated breathing problems; then Nancy’s story will have been worth writing.

COPD can take your breath away…and, the breath of those you love.

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  • Amer

    Gumballs says:My dad was just diagnosed with early COPD. Thank you for posting this educational blog. I wish he were addicted to gumballs rather than cigarettes :-(

  • kampanya

    Congratulations on your beautiful and informative articles

  • Annalise

    Thank you Angela for sharing this information. I'm sure your friend Nancy would be proud of you! We bring so many substances into our home that are not necessary, exposing our families to chemicals that are not thoroughly vetted for long term consumer safety. Smoking may be the main cause of COPD, but our homes today are filled with new hazards marketed as modern conveniences. I read the lables of products now, I never used to. And smoking, well, not in my home!

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