Tuesday, December 02, 2008

COPD patient waits for lung transplant

He's running to catch his breath

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is becoming a scourge across the country

By Chris Zdeb canada.com

EDMONTON - David Smith started smoking when he was 15. He stopped the day he collapsed.

Smith, 63, had been experiencing some shortness of breath before the collapse two years ago, but he figured it was because he was getting older.

During the two-week stay in hospital that followed, his lungs were found to be operating at 25% capacity and he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

An estimated 1.5 million Canadians suffer from the lung-damaging disease, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Another 1.6 million are believed to have it, but haven't been diagnosed.

More people are hospitalized and readmitted because of COPD than with heart failure, angina and other serious chronic diseases. It is the fourth leading cause of death of adult Canadians.

In 85% to 90% of cases, COPD is the result of smoking tobacco, says Dr. Ron Damant, an associate professor of respirology at the University of Alberta. But any kind of chronic inhalation -- second-hand smoke, occupational pollutants, outdoor air pollution -- can cause it as well.

Early symptoms are coughing and bringing up a little sputum (saliva and mucus). Smokers often think that's normal, so they don't worry about it, but it's the first sign of irreversible damage to the lungs and other parts of the body, Damant says.

A chronic cough is always a sign of trouble because it's not a normal thing to have."

Most of the full-blown cases of COPD that doctors see today are in patients who were smoking 20 to 50 years ago.

Smith is on a waiting list for a lung transplant, along with 51 other people, and it could be a year or two before his turn comes, he figures.

Even though he has very little lung capacity, he's not a transplant priority because with the rehabilitation exercises he does three times a week, he is able to function better than most people on the list.

Smith directs the choir at his church, but is no longer physically able to direct the seniors choir with which he is involved.

He says what's past is past and he can't undo the damage he's done to his body by smoking. "What I don't understand is the kids that start smoking nowadays when there is so much information out there about the dangers," he says. "If that information had been available when I was their age, I never would have started."

A diagnosis of COPD is not a death sentence, Damant says.

"The majority of people I know who have the condition, with treatment -- rehabilitation exercises, lifestyle changes -- can go on to live a good quality of life," he says.

But if you don't smoke, don't start. And if you do smoke, stop as soon as possible because it's never too late, Damant says. - The Lung Association runs a Breathworks program, which provides COPD patients with information and support. For more information, go to lung.ca and follow the links to Breathworks, or call the help-line at 1-866-717-COPD (2673).

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