She was wasting away, but now Linna is rewriting her story

By Jessica Ablamsky

Linna Pettey, 59, moved to The Dalles from Portland three years ago for the clean air and country lifestyle. A former alcoholic with no job or friends—she and her boyfriend of 25 years are retired—Linna’s life shrank until she did nothing but sit on the couch and smoke marijuana.

Always petite at 4’11”, due to lack of appetite and exercise her weight dropped to 77 pounds.

Linna wanted to enjoy her retirement by camping, hiking and chasing after her grandchildren. But it was so hard to breathe. Making the long walk to the store was out of the question. She couldn’t even fix her morning coffee without experiencing shortness of breath.

“If I walked down the end of my driveway and back up I was out of breath,” she said. “Getting out of bed. Getting dressed. Lifting up the coffee pot to make the coffee. Lifting up the milk if it was too full.”

When she finally went to Mid-Columbia Medical Center for a lung function test, it confirmed what she suspected: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A chronic inflammatory lung disease, symptoms include difficulty breathing, coughing, mucus and wheezing.

“I was at my wit’s end before I knew I had the COPD,” Linna said. “That’s why I went in to do the test. My aunt died of COPD. I knew that if I didn’t do something about it I would die.”

Pulmonary Rehab Helps Patients Breathe Easier

After getting her test results back, Linna immediately started pulmonary rehabilitation at MCMC. The 10-week program helps patients with chronic lung diseases improve their lung function, reduce the severity of their symptoms and live better lives.

“The only thing I can relate it to is being in Denver where the air is thin,” said Exercise Physiologist Gina Iovenitti. “That panic, ‘Can I even make it to the bathroom without gasping for air?’ That’s really scary.”

For people living with COPD, life becomes a downward spiral of inactivity, said Rhea Wood, a registered nurse who oversees the program.

After experiencing shortness of breath, patients with COPD limit their physical activity. Lack of physical activity causes bone and muscle atrophy, reducing endurance. Lack of endurance leads to more shortness of breath and further inactivity.

“Their mindset is so limited about what they are able to do,” Rhea said. “It spirals down and down until you feel like you cannot do anything at all.”

To manage symptoms and improve their quality of life, pulmonary rehab patients receive exercise training and learn breathing and energy conservation techniques.

“We can’t give you new lungs, but we’re going to show you how to use the lungs you have to the best of your ability,” Rhea said. “We focus on pacing, paying attention to what your body is telling you. You don’t have to go at everyone else’s pace.”

There’s also a social aspect to the program, said Exercise Physiologist Gina Iovenitti. Isolation is common among people living with COPD. They want to go out with their friends, but they’re afraid to slow everyone down.

“Many patients make good progress and continue working out at Water’s Edge,” she said. “For people who are becoming increasingly isolated, this opens up a whole new avenue for them. They can meet a whole new group of people they can relate to and they aren’t slowing anybody down.”

Living Better After Pulmonary Rehab

For Linna, pulmonary rehabilitation changed her life.

Realizing she was withering away, Linna found something to live for: her family. A mother of two with seven grandchildren, Linna wanted a different fate than her parents, who died of cancer at relatively young ages.

With support from program instructors, she quit smoking the cigarettes and marijuana that were exacerbating her COPD. She still exercises at Water’s Edge twice a week with a couple of people she met in class, and her weight is up to 101 pounds.

“Either you give up or you get with the program and do something,” Linna said. “Now I can walk to the little store and back, which was one of my main goals. The walks are pretty long. Longer than I thought I’d ever walk again.”

Linna still loves working out at Water’s Edge and is excited about her progress. She can finally keep up with her 3-year-old grandaughter and is looking forward to the summer camping season.

“This will be my first year getting out there, maybe collecting firewood, taking a trail,” she said. “We just bought a trailer last year. Now I can get out there and do something finally.”

Inspired to fight her disease and live a better life, Linna helped motivate the people around her, Gina said.

“She was a really positive influence on us and her classmates,” Gina said. “When she graduated, there were two people who graduated at around the same time. Both of them were like, ‘We’re gonna go downstairs to the gym because Linna’s down there. We can’t wait to see her.’”

The Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Mid-Columbia Medical Center is designed for patients with chronic respiratory disease (COPD), emphysema, asthma, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis and other chronic lung conditions.

Classes are offered throughout the year and are covered by most insurance plans. MD referral is required. For more information, call 541.296.7319.

COPD: Don’t Dismiss Early Warning Signs as “Just Getting Older”

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. It is the third leading cause of death by disease in the U.S., with more deaths among women than men.

Approximately 12 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COPD, but another 12 million are thought to have undiagnosed COPD. People with COPD often dismiss early warning signs as old age. Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath during everyday activities
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Mucus
  • Blueness of lips or fingernail beds

There is no cure for COPD, but the condition is treatable. Call MCMC Internal Medicine at 541.506.6920 if you experience any of these symptoms or might be at risk for COPD.