Emil Olson, age 62, lives in Sweet Ridge, Colo. Diagnosed with COPD in 2003, his symptoms were so severe his doctor said he'd probably never be able to walk more than a block again. He actively pursued a lung transplant, but didn't qualify because he couldn't walk six minutes. With the help of pulmonary rehabilitation, he greatly increased his walking ability and had a lung transplant. He now takes antirejection medication and can walk a mile a day or more.

By As told to: Tammy Worth
Updated February 29, 2016

An important aspect to improving breathing and lifestyle if you have COPD (or any type of breathing impairment) is pulmonary rehabilitation and exercise. I have COPD/emphysema and was so exhausted just breathing; it was difficult to do any exercise.

But I enrolled in pulmonary rehab and discovered that the effort is just way too simple for the amount of benefit you get from it.

Through the program I learned how to control my breathing. You do upper-chest exercises and stretching and treadmill work. I couldn't walk over two minutes at 1 mile per hour on the treadmill—my legs were weak and my lung capacity was poor. But I went twice a week for about 40 to 45 minutes.

I had to be able to walk six minutes to qualify for a transplant and I couldn't. After three months, I was able to walk six minutes and more. Even though I was still quite ill, this exercise greatly expanded my abilities to function in "normal" life. I have seen people who couldn't walk for two minutes, but after rehab they could walk for 20 minutes or more. I saw miracles happen there.

I had a lung transplant
One piece of advice I have for people with COPD or any lung disease is to be proactive with their treatment. I received a lung transplant because of research and persistence with my insurance, primary-care doctor, pulmonary doctor, and transplant hospital.

I was diagnosed with COPD in 2003. By then, I couldn't walk a flight of stairs without having to stop. I was put on various medications, including Advair, Spiriva, and albuterol inhalers, and after a bout with pneumonia in 2004, I was put on oxygen 24/7. My lung capacity (FEV1) was down to 11%. (A person with healthy lungs has an FEV1 of around 70%.)

I was so sick that my pulmonologist told me I wouldn't likely be able to ever walk more than about a block.

After I qualified for Medicare and purchased supplemental insurance, I started asking my pulmonologist about lung transplants. He said he didn't think Medicare would pay for it. I kept calling my supplemental health insurance company and National Jewish Health, which led me to the transplant services at University of Colorado Hospital. I got tested, and I believe that because I already had pulmonary rehabilitation and a transtracheal procedure, I met the requirements, which most people don't. Miraculously I was on a waiting list for a lung for only nine days.

I had the surgery and my right lung was replaced. My donor saved my life and the lives of six others. He and his family are forever my heroes. Thirty days after the procedure, I was walking a mile a day and, at one point, was walking six to eight miles every day. Before this happened, if I was going to walk, something had to be out of gas.

Now I lead a pretty normal life. I take antirejection medications in the morning and at night, and wear a protective mask when on airplanes or in hospitals. I no longer need O2, and maintain 95% to 97% oxygen saturation levels. My FEV1 is now 68%.

I strongly suggest that you be proactive in your treatment—both for improved breathing and also to see if you would qualify for a transplant. It has been my experience that unless you are in a good pulmonary rehab program or actually being tested for a transplant, the exchange and availability of information is scarce.