Coping with COPD

 The Wichita Eagle

Friday, May 27, 2011

Coping with COPD

Pulmonary rehabilitation can make life easier for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

By Joe Stumpe
Eagle correspondent

On a crisp morning last week, a small army of paid workers and volunteers labored on the new children’s garden at Botanica, digging holes and wrestling trees into place.

Shovel in hand, Dick Anderson looked much like the rest of the volunteers — except for the plastic tubes running from his nose to the oxygen tank he carried on his back.

Anderson, 70, has emphysema, also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Incurable and usually caused by long years of smoking, COPD (which includes chronic bronchitis) is the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

It’s also a disease that tends to isolate people. The main symptom — shortness of breath — can make the simplest task an ordeal, and being hooked to a portable oxygen tank feels like a ball and chain to some.

But medical workers and “COPDers” like Anderson say pulmonary rehabilitation can make a huge positive difference.

“That program has literally saved my life,” Anderson said of the pulmonary rehabilitation program offered at Via Christi. “A doctor basically gave me five years to live. That was eight years ago.”

COPD by the numbers

Nationwide, the numbers associated with COPD are nothing short of breath-taking. According to the American Lung Association, 124,477 people died from it in 2007 and some 13.1 million suffered from it in 2008, the most recent years for which such figures were available.

The estimated cost to the nation of COPD last year was $49.9 billion.

Nevertheless, COPD is thought to be under-diagnosed, and pulmonary rehab is not always recommended for patients who could benefit from it, Via Christi personnel say.

That may change somewhat thanks to Medicare’s decision last year to significantly increase the number of pulmonary rehab sessions it covers. There’s a waiting list of about six weeks for the Via Christi center, the only one in the area.

Via Christi’s rehab specialists hold Anderson up as an example of what the rehab can accomplish, although they admit his success is exceptional.

Anderson retired in 2002 after 37 years with Hawker Beechcraft, where he spent most of his career negotiating contracts with foreign governments. He smoked for just as long, and in 2005 it caught up with him.

After driving with his wife to an emergency care clinic, Anderson collapsed and had to be rushed to a hospital. He spent a week in a coma, was diagnosed with emphysema and pneumonia, and discharged with a portable oxygen tank.

“I’ve been on oxygen 24/7 since,” he said.

Anderson took the most important step immediately and stopped smoking. His physician didn’t recommend pulmonary rehab; Anderson isn’t sure why. He came across the concept about two years later while doing research about his condition online and soon got the necessary referral to Via Christi’s center, located on the St. Francis campus.

Breathing lessons

Anderson, who’s been in the maintenance phase of the program for three years, visits the center twice a week.

After an evaluation, the first thing rehab specialists work on with patients is a technique called “pursed-lip breathing.”

“You breathe in through the nose and blow out through the lips like you’re blowing out a little candle,” respiratory therapist Nicole Holzman said. “And you blow out two times longer than you take in. It puts a back pressure in the lungs, which gets rid of that excess carbon dioxide. It’s also relaxing, similar to what they teach in yoga.”

The center contains a range of exercise equipment, from treadmills and dumbbells to weight machines and bands used for exercises. Rehab specialists work with patients on stretching and proper technique.

“I’ve got to admit when I first started rehab, I could go about a mile and a half an hour on the treadmill,” said Anderson. “Now I’m up to 3 1/2 miles an hour. That’s not real fast for a healthy person, but for those of us on oxygen, it’s good.”

After walking on the treadmill, Anderson lifted weights — 30 reps of curls and military presses with a 12-pound dumbbell in each hand. He then moved to a machine for bench presses.

Anderson also gets as much exercise as he can on days he doesn’t visit the center, walking two to three miles and working in his garden.

The center’s specialists also teach patients about managing their medication, nutrition and oxygen delivery systems, along with a number of specialized techniques and devices used for clearing mucus and carbon dioxide from their bodies.

Support group

Dealing with the mental aspects of COPD seems to play just as large a role as the physical. Ann O’Toole, who’s been going to the center for three years, said her fellow patients form a vital support group for her. Many of the exercises are done in groups, and participants talk about anything and everything between all the stretching, lifting, pushing and pulling.

“We tell bad jokes, we tease, we turn into third-graders,” O’Toole, 59, said. “We share stories, we compare notes.”

Shortly before, the patients had just finished singing “Happy Birthday” and polishing off cookies in honor of one of their members. O’Toole said depression is a common side effect of COPD. “But these people perk you up. You go out of here smiling even if you’ve had a bad day.”

As for the physical rehab, it’s helped O’Toole avoid needing a portable oxygen tank for now and stay active in her children’s and grandchildren’s lives.

“For St. Patrick’s Day I did the grocery shopping, I did the cooking,” she said. “I cooked 16 pounds of corned beef, potatoes, cabbage and bread.”

Another participant, Ron Edwards, has been part of the program only since February but has already seen progress.

“It had gotten to the point where if I took a shower, my wife had to dry me off,” he said. “Now that’s not necessary.”

Edwards, 71, has a role model — Anderson.

“My goal is to be able to do what he’s doing, because he was as bad as I am,” he said.

Anderson isn’t sure why more people with COPD don’t try to make the most of their condition. He shakes his head recounting newspaper stories about people with oxygen tanks starting fires by smoking cigarettes.

Life with COPD isn’t easy, he says. He’s had two more bouts of pneumonia. He thinks the rehab program helped him to recover.

Anderson’s optimistic nature is probably a big reason he’s been able to cope with COPD, say rehab specialists who work with him. As he speaks with the tubes in his nose, he appears to be breathing with some difficulty. He says he’s learned that “much shortness of breath is between the ears.”

“I just decided to stay active,” Anderson says back at Botanica. “I much prefer it out here.”

If you go

fight for air climb

What: On Saturday, the American Lung Association will stage its Fight for Air Climb, a vertical race to climb 34 floors. Instead of walking or running, as in many other health-related fundraisers, participants will climb steps and donate their pledged money to help fight COPD, asthma and other lung diseases. Money raised stays in this area.

Where: Intrust Bank Arena

When: 9 a.m. Saturday

How much: The registration fee is $25. The minimum fundraising goal for all participants is $75.

To register or for more information, go to or call 316-558-3090.

© 2011 Wichita Eagle and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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