My Smoker's Cough Turned Out to Be Emphysema


(BOB HABICH)When I was younger, I worked in pharmaceutical sales. When I was on the road, it wasn't unusual to have to trot from one flight to the next at the airport, and I didn't even think twice about it. I was in good shape; I never got out of breath, no matter how far I walked.

Being a salesman was stressful, but it also could be boring at times. I had started smoking when I was 17 years old, and when I was working, cigarettes offered a way to deal with stress and pass the time when I was bored. I went through more than two packs a day at one point. Back then, I was like many other young people; I thought I was invincible.

But then things started to change. I picked up a smoker's cough, and by 1994, when I was in my early 50s, I started getting out of breath. I hadn't really noticed it before, but for the first time, I couldn't keep up with people when we were walking in a group.

Now I use oxygen around the clock
I went to the doctor and found out I had COPD. To be honest, I didn't know anything about the condition. I'd heard of bronchitis and emphysema, though, and it turns out that COPD is a combination of both.

When you have COPD, tiny structures within your lungs become irritated and damaged, and breathing becomes more and more difficult. As a result, it becomes harder to do physical activities without getting short of breath. The disease has no cure; the goal is to keep it from getting worse.

The best thing you can do is quit smoking; I finally quit in 2001. I tried everything: the patch, gum, oral medications, and, finally, hypnosis. Hypnosis worked for me; I never had another cigarette. It doesnt even bother me to be in the presence of people smoking.

Shortly after, I had back-to-back surgeries to clean out arteries in my neck—which were clogged due to atherosclerosis—that could have caused a stroke. After that, my breathing became much worse. That's when I started using oxygen.

I use a machine that provides extra oxygen for me to breathe. A tube delivers this oxygen to my nose 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I need 15 liters of oxygen every minute, which is an extremely heavy dose.

At home, a machine called a concentrator provides my oxygen by concentrating the oxygen from the air in the room. When I'm out of the house, I carry a refillable container of liquid oxygen with a strap that goes over my shoulder. I don't even notice the sound anymore, but people have told me it sounds like a garden hose running.

Next Page: Life with COPD is just much slower [ pagebreak ]Life with COPD is just much slower
I was recently talking with someone else who has COPD. We were reminiscing about being in a hurry, how we used to be able to walk fast or even start running when necessary. Today, the pace of my life is much slower.

If I had to pick a word to describe my life these days, it would be changed. When I go up and down stairs, I move slower. When I walk across a parking lot, I walk slower. When you have this disease and it's progressed to the point that it's severe, you notice all kinds of things you can't do anymore. I can't shovel snow or just decide to repaint the woodwork outside my house.

That's not to say I don't get out, though. Twice a week I go to a program at a local hospital where I walk and use exercise machines for an hour. And I go to events hosted by the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, where I listen to experts speak about the latest research on COPD and other lung diseases.

My one major regret? Smoking. I'd like to tell any readers who are smoking to stop. Someday you're going to want to have the best quality of life you can, and COPD definitely reduces that quality.

When my children were small, I played sports and did other activities with them. Now I have three grandchildren. I thought I would be able to do the same things with them, but I can't.