Early COPD Diagnosis and Education Help Make Symptoms Manageable

by Maggie Borger


My COPD diagnosis can only be described as shocking. When I first got sick in December 2004, I thought I just had the flu. But my breathing difficulties worsened until I was diagnosed six months later with emphysema, a form of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

On that day in mid-December, I lit a cigarette as I left work, laughing and chatting with my girlfriends. I was breathless when I got to my car but chalked it up to smoking and drove home.

I pulled in the driveway and had a lot on my mind, thinking about Christmas plans. I felt chilled as I went into the house. I told my daughter I wanted to lie down for 20 minutes and then would prepare dinner.

I awoke to her standing over me saying, "Mom, wake up. You are burning up." She took my temperature—103 degrees. No wonder I was short of breath earlier, I thought, but I didn't feel too sick otherwise.

In the morning I couldn't move, let alone go to work. I tried to get up and had to hold on to the walls to get to the bathroom. I could barely breathe. I decided I had the flu.

The weekend came and I was no better. I could barely breathe, let alone walk and breathe. I wondered what was happening as I attempted to make my way to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and a cigarette with my husband. Yes, I was still smoking and knew I should quit, but I was afraid I could not do it.

I was now concerned about going to work on Monday and told my husband to take me to the urgent care center. He was so concerned that he took me to the hospital instead. On the way I thought, "I should have a cigarette now since there is no smoking on the hospital grounds." I struggled to enjoy it, but I could hardly inhale it. Little did I know this was to be my last cigarette.

 At the hospital, a triage nurse routinely took my blood pressure, temperature, etc. I looked around and thought to myself, "It's going to be a long wait, since they seem to have real emergencies taking place." To my surprise they brought a bed into the triage area and wheeled me into a room bustling with nurses. They immediately gave me oxygen, did an EKG, drew blood and brought in a portable chest X-ray.

I told my husband they were fussing quite a bit over just the flu. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, "I don't think you are coming home tonight."

The next 10 days were a blur of tests and medications. I had experienced what is called an exacerbation, or severe flare-up of symptoms, which is common with COPD. The morning of Christmas Eve I pleaded with my doctor to go home. He released me but insisted on oxygen therapy and bed rest, and I was ordered to come to his office every week until I improved.

Once at home, I was distressed. I worried about my job and what I would do if I couldn't gain endurance again. I was in a constant state of angst over my health.

My recovery took months. On the way to see my pulmonologist one day in May, about five months after my hospital stay, I smugly thought, "I quit smoking—he could not possibly have anything negative to say."

Boy, was I wrong! He confirmed that I had severe emphysema, a form of COPD, and that the pneumonia, and my smoking, had likely caused a flare-up in my disease. All I could think of after speaking with him was how could I have severe emphysema? Why on earth would he talk about the possibility of a lung transplant?! I am only 54 years old. I have a child at home. My husband and I have no plans to retire until we are 65. We've only traveled to Europe, and we still want to travel to China. Surely this doctor was wrong.

"Come back in a month," he said.

I thought, "Well, I will come back in a month and straighten him out."

Instead, I went online and read everything I could find. I found a wealth of information and a very large group of survivors in an online Internet support group called EFFORTS (www.emphysema.net). I joined and began to learn.

I also began walking, first throughout the house, then out the door and back in again. I did this six to eight times a day to regain enough endurance to get back to work. I decided to get a puppy to accompany me. Over time, the puppy got bigger and I got stronger. Soon we were walking down the block, then around the block multiple times a day. We kept going until we were walking two miles a day. We even did a 5K.

I've learned so much from this experience. Most importantly, I learned to manage my disease and not let it manage me. I also learned that education about COPD is key. It is common for people to be unaware, like I was, that they have a progressive and degenerative disease that does not go away. I encourage people to talk to their physician if they have symptoms like coughing and wheezing, especially if they are smokers, to test for this disease. The earlier the diagnosis, the sooner you can start helping yourself.

Today I'm grateful to still have my own lungs. I follow a healthy diet, and I teamed up with my pulmonologist to map out goals for myself so I will see achievable results to manage my disease. As for the puppy, he is 7 years old now. We still take daily walks. He watches over me and will even wake me in the night if my oxygen cannula falls off my face.

Maggie Borger is vice president of EFFORTS and works on the COPD Foundation Coaches Corner. She lives in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with her husband and dog and enjoys her three married children and seven grandchildren.

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