One Woman’s Story of Living with COPD

Why communication with your healthcare provider is essential for managing COPD.

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For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), the symptoms often come on slowly and steadily, progressively getting worse over time. That’s part of the reason why some people may suffer in silence for longer than they need to—or should. Some may even believe their symptoms are a result of aging, as was the case for Barbara Moore who experienced symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, and the inability to exercise or even walk short distances. “I felt the symptoms but made excuses for them like age and weight,” she says. “I was keeping it a secret because I didn’t want to quit smoking. I felt guilty that I may have contributed to my condition.”

While there are many contributing factors, a history of smoking is by far the number one cause of COPD. Other causes include second-hand smoke exposure, air pollution, repeated lung infections during childhood, and genetics. If you are a smoker, the sooner you quit, the better. Not only will this reduce your risk of developing COPD, but it also helps to slow down the disease if you already have it.

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Barbara is certainly not alone when it comes to her diagnosis. COPD affects more than 2 million Canadians, and includes diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD also makes day-to-day tasks extremely challenging and can negatively impact mental health. Simple activities like walking and climbing stairs can be difficult.

For Barbara, walking from her car in the parking lot to the classroom where she worked as a College Instructor become impossible without a rest. Even short distances would cause her to have shortness of breath. “I could no longer stand to deliver lectures to my classes. I needed to sit, and was constantly scanning the room for a chair to use,” she says. “I stopped participating in life and sat on the sidelines while everyone enjoyed themselves.”

It took eight years of living with symptoms that slowly and steadily progressed before Barbara sought help. “I convinced myself it was simply the aging process that was slowing me down,” she says. Eventually, she talked to her doctor and requested a spirometry test. “It was becoming impossible for me to hide my symptoms any longer,” she says. A spirometry is a simple breathing test, which measures how much and how fast you can move air in and out of your lungs. This can help your doctor make a diagnosis.

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There’s no cure for COPD, but it can be treated and managed in order to improve quality of life. Plus, the earlier you’re able to get a diagnosis, the easier it is to treat. People with COPD are more likely to suffer from other chronic diseases such as arthritis, congestive heart failure, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, or asthma, so it’s important to stay active and keep your doctor informed of any changes in your health.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Barbara suffered a sudden cardiac arrest at home. “[Paramedics] worked hard to save my life that night. I was stabilized and put into a medically induced coma, and on a ventilator for five days. I would spend 30 days in ICU and be released to Respiratory Rehab as an inpatient. As I finished up, 4 months later, I would suffer another sudden cardiac arrest and spend another month in hospital. I was finally fitted with an Internal Cardiac Defibrillator (ICD) and diagnosed with heart failure.”

For the first two years after her diagnosis, Barbara says she was in and out of the hospital many times, mainly for symptoms of heart failure that mimicked the symptoms of COPD. “Once admitted to hospital, I would be put on diuretics that would wring me out like a sponge. Being released home, I would be down about 10 lbs and feeling like a million bucks. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening or why I could not maintain it. Within a month I would fill up with fluid and again be unable to breathe,” she says.

Barbara saw a Cardiologist who understood what was happening, and worked with her Pulmonary Specialist to come up with some medication options. “We discussed the Beta Blockers I was on and he switched me to one that was a better fit for those with COPD,” she says. “He prescribed daily diuretics to keep the retaining fluid lower. Since my team of Cardio and Pulmo have been working together, I have not had any hospital admissions.”

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Now, Barbara has regular meetings with a Pulmonary Specialist and regular spirometry tests to monitor the decline of her lungs. “My doctor has given me an action plan of steroids and antibiotics in case of a flare-up or exacerbation of my symptoms,” she says.

These regular check-ins with her health care team are an essential part of Barbara’s treatment plan. At each meeting, her Pulmonary Specialist reviews the medications she’s on and does a general lung and heart test. “He always asks if I have any specific questions or problems, and how I think I am doing overall,” she says.

Different types of medications are available to help manage the disease and its symptoms so an ongoing dialogue with a health care professional will help determine the best treatment plan.

Barbara is also able to exercise more now thanks to Respiratory Rehabilitation. “It keeps me motivated to exercise every day and they have many add-on programs to join.”

Barbara’s spouse, George, describes her life with COPD as very difficult at first, but says she’s done a lot to educate herself, including co-chairing a monthly support group that he also attends. “She’s doing quite a lot to help herself deal with this disease,” he says.

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Thanks to support from her family and healthcare providers, Moore is able to manage her symptoms. “My healthcare providers were wonderful to me right from the beginning,” she says. “They told me that this illness was not my fault and that I couldn’t go back but I could certainly go forward and learn to live with COPD.”

Being proactive is key when it comes to managing COPD. If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD or are experiencing COPD-related symptoms, speak to your healthcare provider to determine the best treatment plan for you.

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