COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is an umbrella term that encompasses both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It’s the disease that led to my father’s death this summer and that made him struggle to breathe for years. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 135,000 Americans each year. More than 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, and many more are likely unaware that they have the disease.
My dad smoked regularly, though not heavily, from his teen years in the early 1960s until his mid-50s, when he was hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia. He also worked for more than 35 years in an industrial setting where he breathed toxic fumes. He stopped working the year before he got pneumonia, and he stopped smoking about 17 years before his death. Back then, I thought his damaged lungs would heal in time. I remember one of the doctors in the hospital telling us that he appeared to have the beginning of emphysema, but no one explained what that meant or what he could do about it. He was not referred to a specialist, and he was not educated about or treated for COPD until years later.
In the meantime, he experienced increasing shortness of breath and tightness in his chest. He tried to remain active and continue living his life, but everyday activities became more and more difficult. He was eventually prescribed oral medications and inhalers, then nebulizer treatments, and eventually supplemental oxygen. He had to be extra vigilant during cold and flu season, because any respiratory illness could cause his condition to further deteriorate. He would occasionally suffer from flare ups of his COPD — episodes of intense breathlessness that came on suddenly. I only witnessed this once, but it was scary to watch. He sat on the floor of my bathroom desperately trying to assemble his nebulizer as quickly as possible while he gasped for air.
If my dad were here right now, he would tell you how hard it was to live with COPD. He would tell you that it’s not the way anyone would want to live or die. COPD robbed him of a lot of life in his later years, and it stole too many years from his life. He died at the age of 72. Aside from his failing lungs, at the time of his death, he was perfectly healthy.
If you are a smoker, please take my dad’s experience to heart. Quit smoking, and do it now. Don’t wait until the disease process has begun. COPD is irreversible — there is no cure. The people who love you do not want to see you suffer the way my dad suffered, and they don’t want to lose you to this disease.
Though the majority of people who have COPD were smokers, it is possible to develop COPD even if you have never smoked. Those of us who are not smokers should educate ourselves about air pollution and indoor air quality. The American Lung Association offers information and tips to improve the quality of the air you breathe.
If you are experiencing shortness of breath, you can take a screening quiz to learn whether you are at risk of COPD. Your doctor can perform tests to determine whether you have COPD and can prescribe various treatments and lifestyle changes to improve your quality of life. There are also support groups for people suffering from COPD.
The ability to breathe is essential to life, yet most of us take it for granted. Today, I hope you’ll think about those who are struggling to breathe and take a moment to appreciate your breath. If you feel so inclined, you can support COPD research, education, and treatment efforts by making a donation to the American Lung Association. I’m making a gift in memory of my dad, whom I miss every single day, in the hope that someone else may not have to suffer the way he did.
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