Breathing Freely

By Pulmonary Rehabilitation

There’s some life-saving going on in Mid-Columbia Medical Center’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program—or at the very least, quality-of-life-saving.

People who were finding it difficult to breathe while doing simple tasks — walking into the grocery store, gardening, playing with their grandchildren — are now doing more than they thought possible.

Three Gorge residents are among those who have seen their daily lives improve dramatically after spending 10 weeks traveling to MCMC’s Water’s Edge center in The Dalles for physical conditioning and classes designed to help them deal with their lung disease. All are former smokers who had been recently diagnosed with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“I wasn’t able to do very much because I was having breathing problems,” says Tom Yasui, a 70-year-old retired orchardist from Hood River.

Carolyn Garren, also 70, feared she would no longer be able to mow the lawn and tend to her vegetable garden at her country home outside Goldendale.

“I’ve seen what lung disease can do to people,” says Garren, who lost her husband and sister to lung cancer. “It was kind of disheartening to think I was getting on that road.”

Klickitat resident Becky Looney says she knew she was headed for shortness of breath after nearly a lifetime of smoking.

“I’m not stupid,”she says, “I knew there would be issues. It just happens so quick.”

Instead of giving in to the vicious cycle of shortness of breath, doing less, remaining on the couch, having their muscles atrophy
and then finding they can do even less, the trio agreed to get active.

Upon enrolling in pulmonary rehab, they met registered nurse Susan Benedict, the program’s coordinator, and Bernie Fitzsimons, an exercise specialist.

Benedict emphasizes that the program is individualized to meet each person’s needs and capabilities. The staff understands their patients may be fearful of what lies ahead and doubtful they have the strength to exercise.

Some people who come into the program think their lives are over.

“This decreases their stress level, blood pressure and heart rate. If they have diabetes, it decreases blood sugars,” Benedict says. “Exercise does all of that. It’s the best drug ever.”

It also improves their mental attitude. “The biggest thing that program did was give me hope that I wasn’t going to hit that downward spiral,” Garren says. “It gave me tools to combat that.”

Some of the tools came from the classroom talks. “Pharmacists came in and explained our medications to us,” Looney recalls. “I’d
never experienced that before.”

Medical professionals also discuss proper nutrition, weight control, coping with stress and how to prevent colds, flus and viruses.

Participants are taught new breathing techniques because their lungs have lost their former elasticity due to decades of smoking.

“The breathing techniques really taught me how to use my diaphragm again,” Looney says.

Some participants who use oxygen find they can disconnect their tanks more often than before.

Benedict refuses to let the word “exercise” scare anyone away from the program. The sessions simply encourage “activity” and often begin with stretching — something even those in wheelchairs can do.

Yasui, Garren and Looney all began with stints on the treadmill, even if they could walk only for four to six minutes. Fitzsimons monitored their vital signs during each session.

“I was impressed with how concerned they were with how comfortable you were and your vital signs,” Yasui says.

All three participants saw marked improvement during the initial program and have committed to continuing to exercise in their own way.

Garren works out at Muscle and Fitness in The Dalles a couple of times a week with her daughter and granddaughter. She’s renewed her love of weightlifting, a sport in which she earned trophies for bench press back in the ’90s.

Yasui now walks through his cherry and pear orchards and fulfilled a dream of traveling to Hawaii this past spring. His only regret is he didn’t enroll in the program earlier.

“I didn’t expect them to help me as much as they did,” he says.

Looney, who had never considered working out at a gym earlier in her life, made friends in the program and continues to exercise under medical supervision at Water’s Edge Fitness Center a couple of days a week.

“We kind of push each other on different pieces of equipment,” she says.

She’s applied for a Medicare Advantage program she hopes will cover the cost of a gym membership so she can keep up her now 90-minute workout sessions. Health insurance already covered the cost of the initial pulmonary rehab program for Looney and the others.

“I really think that program is A-1. I really do,” Looney says. “I know it meant a lot to me and the people in it.”

Benedict says such patient satisfaction makes her job gratifying.

“It changes people’s lives completely. Within two weeks they feel better and they start to feel more confident,” she says.

“I’m so proud to be in a program like this where there’s so much success.”

So are the patients, who have less discomfort, more physical endurance and a higher quality of life.

Garren set a long-term goal to begin hiking to waterfalls in the Gorge. Near her birthday this past spring, she and a friend
accomplished the steep one third-mile hike to Ponytail Falls.

“I am able to do more. I’m also more positive about the present and the future,” she says. “If I keep at it and I don’t quit, I can do better.”

Experiencing Shortness of Breath?

If you have been diagnosed with a chronic lung disease such as COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, persistent asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, MCMC’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation program at Water’s Edge can help you breathe easier and enjoy a higher quality of life.

In addition to accepting referrals from all healthcare providers the program accepts self-referrals from patients.

For more information, call 541.296.7319.