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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects an estimated 24 million Americans, killing more than 120,000 sufferers each year, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). In fact, it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Yet half of those with the condition don’t even know they have it. An incurable but treatable condition, COPD is characterized by obstruction of air flow, which interferes with normal breathing. Grace Anne Dorney Koppel, an attorney and the wife of journalist Ted Koppel, explains how she copes with the disease.
How were you first diagnosed with COPD, and what were your symptoms?
I was diagnosed in 2001. I noticed I could only walk about half a block before I had to stop and catch my breath. And I could not sleep lying down. I would lie propped up on pillows listening to these awful sounds in my chest—wheezing, rasping and coughing. Later, when I went on vacation with my husband and daughter, I could not walk upstairs. When we came home, we decided to seek out a major medical center. As soon as they gave me a breathing test, it was clear I had COPD. I had 25 percent of the expected results for someone of my age, gender and race. I was in severe respiratory distress.

How did you cope with the diagnosis?
When I was diagnosed, it was a slap in the face. But I was determined to make the most of things. My focus became building up my strength, putting my life in order and trying to move on.

What risk factors contributed to your illness?
I was a heavy smoker for many years, and that is the primary risk factor for COPD. Even though I hadn’t smoked for 12 years, the disease was progressing in my body. But it’s important to know that one in six people with COPD have never smoked. Some may have grown up or worked in jobs where they were exposed to irritants like smoke or air pollutants. And a small number of people are genetically predisposed to get COPD.

What treatments have you been offered?

I enrolled in a pulmonary rehabilitation program, which provided education and exercise classes. I use bronchodilators—inhaled substances that open up the airways. Some people are candidates for inhaled steroids, which help reduce inflammation. The most important thing I  do is exercise six days a week. The more a person can exercise, the greater the chance of improving quality of life. My breathing is now close to 75 percent of expected capacity.

What do you advise people who are experiencing symptoms like yours?
First, insist on a breathing test. All you do is blow as hard and fast as you can into a tube that’s attached to a machine. An onscreen readout tells if you need further testing. If you are diagnosed with COPD, seek out the best doctor you can find and get treated. And by all means, if you smoke, stop. Life with COPD can be very good, if the disease is treated early.

-As told to Beth Howard

For more information about this common but little-known condition, you can contact the NHLBI directly at learnaboutcopd.org or 301-592-8573.


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