Breaking out of breathing 'prison'
CABIN CREEK, W.Va. -- Stacy Carter no longer can do many of the outdoor activities he used to love.
"I used to go hunting and fishing all the time," Carter said. "I can't wander around the woods because of the shortness of breath."
The 54-year-old Campbells Creek man was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease last year. Since he was diagnosed, Carter's been in and out of the hospital and was even in a coma for a week earlier this year, he said.
COPD is an illness that makes it difficult to breathe. It causes wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and other symptoms, and it gets worse over time. As was the case with Carter, smoking often causes the disease.
However, with the help of pulmonary rehabilitation therapy at a new addition to Cabin Creek Health Center in Dawes, doctors tell Carter he'll be able to get his COPD under control.
"I'll stay the same but just get it under control where I can breathe," Carter said. "They can't get it back to where it was, but they can help me stabilize it."
Carter will be one of the first patients at the Grace Anne Dorney Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center at the clinic, which is one of three sites in Southern West Virginia that will begin offering the therapy.
The project also will have sites at the New River Health Center in Fayette County and Boone Memorial Hospital in Madison.
The project's namesake, Grace Anne Dorney, is an attorney and an advocate for COPD patients. She is the wife of Ted Koppel, the TV journalist best known as the longtime host of "Nightline."
Koppel and Dorney, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon, the United Mine Workers of America, Cabin Creek Health Systems, Charleston Area Medical Center and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation have contributed to the project.
Doctors once told Dorney, who also suffers from COPD, that she had three to five years to live. That was in 2001, but with pulmonary rehabilitation therapy - a structured program of group patient education and exercise - she's doing much better, Koppel said.
Patients start out slow, Koppel said, walking on a treadmill at a slow pace and working up to longer distances.
"Here we are, 13 years later, and she's doing about two, two-and-a-half miles a day on the treadmill," Koppel said. "So she's doing very well."
The couple has been motivated to help other people with COPD have the same kind of success.
Dorney said she was on the verge of giving up hope when she was diagnosed 13 years ago, but her doctor prescribed the therapy that has helped her improve.
"I changed, but I had the opportunity to change," she said. "I do believe life is breath, and if you breathe well, you will live long on earth."
COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the nation, trailing only heart disease and cancer. West Virginia has some of the highest rates in the country for COPD. In Southern West Virginia, the rate of hospitalization for COPD is twice the national rate. About 45 percent of people with the disease do not know they have it, according to experts.
"It's more important to West Virginia than any other states in the country," Sen. Rockefeller said. "We've got 64,000 people that have this, and 45 percent of those who may have it don't know. So what is the real figure, we can't be sure."
Not only will the project treat COPD patients, it also will treat black-lung patients, medical director Dr. Dan Doyle said.
Coal miners frequently suffer from COPD, Doyle said.
Statistics say 105,000 coal miners have died because of black lung but that number is likely higher, said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union.
"One of the things we all know is that if you spend any time in a coal mine, you're probably going to have some kind of breathing impairment," Roberts said.
Frank Gould, 64, of Chesapeake, suffers from black lung after spending 21 years as a coal miner. He was diagnosed in 1994.
"I can't do anything I used to do," Gould said. "I just sit around all the time. You can't eat like you need to eat.
"It's hard to explain, when you're used to being active all the time and now I've gotten to where I can't do nothing."
Gould, who already is a patient at Cabin Creek, is in the process of getting a doctor's approval to start pulmonary rehabilitation treatment at the clinic.
"I'm willing to try anything," Gould said. "I just want to try to get better to where I can breathe better and . . . Right now I just feel like I'm in prison." Reach Lori Kersey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1240.