My Smoker's Cough Turned Out to Be Emphysema

Bob Habich, 66, is a retired pharmaceutical salesman from Schaumburg, Ill. When he was working, his fast-paced, stressful job kept him on the move; running from one flight to another in the airport wasn't unusual. He often turned to cigarettes to deal with his on-the-road job stress, and at one point, he was a two-pack-a-day smoker. Now, life is much slower for Habich. When he was in his early 50s, he found out his "smoker's cough" was actually chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a disorder that includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Now he walks slowly and can't do many of the activities he did in the past. He uses oxygen around the clock and carries a container of liquid oxygen strapped to his shoulder whenever he leaves his house.

When I was younger, I worked in pharmaceutical sales. When I was on the road, it wasn't unusual to have to trot from one flight to the next at the airport, and I didn't even think twice about it. I was in good shape; I never got out of breath, no matter how far I walked.

Being a salesman was stressful, but it also could be boring at times. I had started smoking when I was 17 years old, and when I was working, cigarettes offered a way to deal with stress and pass the time when I was bored. I went through more than two packs a day at one point. Back then, I was like many other young people; I thought I was invincible.

But then things started to change. I picked up a smoker's cough, and by 1994, when I was in my early 50s, I started getting out of breath. I hadn't really noticed it before, but for the first time, I couldn't keep up with people when we were walking in a group.

Now I use oxygen around the clock
I went to the doctor and found out I had COPD. To be honest, I didn't know anything about the condition. I'd heard of bronchitis and emphysema, though, and it turns out that COPD is a combination of both.

When you have COPD, tiny structures within your lungs become irritated and damaged, and breathing becomes more and more difficult. As a result, it becomes harder to do physical activities without getting short of breath. The disease has no cure; the goal is to keep it from getting worse.

The best thing you can do is quit smoking; I finally quit in 2001. I tried everything: the patch, gum, oral medications, and, finally, hypnosis. Hypnosis worked for me; I never had another cigarette. It doesnt even bother me to be in the presence of people smoking.

Shortly after, I had back-to-back surgeries to clean out arteries in my neck—which were clogged due to atherosclerosis—that could have caused a stroke. After that, my breathing became much worse. That's when I started using oxygen.

I use a machine that provides extra oxygen for me to breathe. A tube delivers this oxygen to my nose 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I need 15 liters of oxygen every minute, which is an extremely heavy dose.

At home, a machine called a concentrator provides my oxygen by concentrating the oxygen from the air in the room. When I'm out of the house, I carry a refillable container of liquid oxygen with a strap that goes over my shoulder. I don't even notice the sound anymore, but people have told me it sounds like a garden hose running.

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As told to: Eric Metcalf
Last Updated: April 01, 2009

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