Breathing. From the moment we are born, taking our first breath is a natural occurrence. Breathing is automatic. We don’t think about doing it; it just happens. For someone battling lung disease, the opposite is true. Breathing is a laborious job. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, makes breathing difficult for the 16 million Americans who have the disease. Millions more have the disease but have never been diagnosed. There is no cure for COPD but it can be treated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COPD was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2014.
COPD refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In the U.S., tobacco smoke is the leading cause in the development and progression of COPD. Exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic factors, and respiratory infections also play a role. Treatment options include, but are not limited to, the following:
A thorough examination by your healthcare provider is required prior to beginning some of these treatments.
For Larry LaLonde, a Manistique Native and Vietnam Veteran, being diagnosed with COPD at the age of 49 and the events to follow played out like a Hollywood film. On a trip to Lake Tahoe, Larry experienced shortness of breath that was later diagnosed as COPD. Being a long-time smoker, a factory worker for GM, and having a family history of lung ailments, LaLonde could see the numerous causes for the disease. Over the next 9 years, Larry was seeing a Pulmonologist downstate. In 2006, he was hospitalized and was placed on oxygen. He was also referred to the University of Michigan under the care of Dr. Steven Gay in the Pulmonary Clinic. They tried various treatment options and clinical trials, but LaLonde’s condition had become too extreme. This was the first time the words ‘lung transplant’ were mentioned. Larry and his wife, Mary’s, hearts sank. “The only way for me to get a lung was someone else had to die. That’s not an easy thing to be okay with,” recalls Larry.
Larry was placed on the transplant waiting list 13 years after his diagnosis - December of 2010. His health kept declining until it got to the point he couldn’t walk from one room to another without stopping to catch his breath - even on oxygen. While on the waiting list, there were many hospitalizations and trips to the Emergency Department. When the lungs stop functioning properly it starts to wear on other organs of the body, such as the heart, causing ailments like atrial fibrillation, AFib.
The Pulmonary Rehab program at Helen Newberry Joy Hospital helped LaLonde work out his frustrations with his illness by exercising and lifting weights under the guidance of a licensed technician. “They are more than techs,” explained Mary, “they are your therapist and confidant.” While in pulmonary rehab, Larry learned different ways to do the most basic tasks, like bathing and dressing, in order to decrease onsets of breathlessness. He learned different breathing techniques to help clear his lungs and to increase stamina while his upper body and spirit grew stronger.
According to Gift of Life Michigan, right now, about 3,000 very sick Michigan residents are waiting for organ transplants and a new shot at life. The number of Michigan patients waiting remains high because there aren’t enough donated organs to meet the need for transplants.
Fifty-four months and one day later, Larry got the call he and his family had been desperately waiting for. After recovering from his initial shock, his first thought was of the donor and their family.
Little did Larry, and his wife Mary, know how chronic disease and waiting for a transplant would forever change them. Going from perfect health and declining to a debilitating disease, and then going through transplant surgery and recovery took a toll. Even the year following his lung transplant LaLonde was on shaky ground.
“The entire team at HNJH were a godsend” states the LaLondes. “We couldn’t have gotten through this without the expertise, care, and guidance of staff that not only delivered care - but also offered compassion, encouragement, and support.”
Mary and Larry don’t know much about the donor who gave Larry a new lease on life. They do know she was 18 years old and may have also donated a second lung, heart, kidneys, liver, corneas, and tissue to other recipients. They have written letters to the family with the assistance of Gift of Life Michigan, but the family has not yet chosen to correspond. “We just want her family to know that because of her gift Larry is able to watch all 7 of his great-grandchildren grow up,” laments Mary. Each day is a gift for Mary and Larry LaLonde. In spite of taking at least 20 pills a day to stop a transplant rejection and keep his other organs functioning properly, Larry wouldn’t change being able to take a deep breath for anything. For a man who almost lost his life, blowing out all the candles on his birthday cake is a big deal not possible without the selflessness of a donor.
Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the transplant waiting list. To learn more about the facts and myths of organ donation, or for information on how to become a donor, visit www.giftoflifemichigan.org.