My genetic legacy is one-half related to Native Americans and half related to Roma Gypsies. My biological father left the scene shortly after my birth and as a result the nurture part of being raised among Gypsies only cemented the nature aspect of hereditary passage of traits. One of the traits that defined Roma Gypsies for centuries is smoking . Interestingly, a trait shared with a large percentage of Native Americans. So perhaps I was just destined to develop COPD as a result of secondhand smoke. One of the great ironies of my experience in dealing with COPD is that I never felt the compulsion to smoke that so many of my Gypsy relatives felt.
I grew up in a household and extended Gypsy family where smoking was pretty much the norm. You walked into a trailer in which great-uncles and second-cousins lived and there was smoke. You came home from school to your grandmother’s home and there was smoke. Perhaps my utter lack of interest in tobacco and cigarettes is proof positive that aversion therapy is the key to kicking the habit. Unfortunately, time has proven that you don’t have to necessarily smoke to develop respiratory medical disorders associated with the act, including COPD.
The road to my diagnosis of COPD was the sudden development of a chronic cough not too long after my 45th birthday in October. Even though the cough continued pretty much unabated throughout the fall and into the winter–to the point where I could barely start a sentence without lapsing into a coughing fit–I didn’t think anything of it. It was the cold and flu season and not the first time I’d had a persistent cough.
The cough abated somewhat during the summer and then made an even more intense comeback the following fall and winter. The most frustrating part was being unable to string more than a few words together without collapsing into a coughing fit. The big difference that next fall and winter was the increased effluence of sputum and the much more noticeable incidence of shortness of breath. But it wasn’t until I went jogging with my wife one night that I realized something more than a mere cough was at work here. I jogged for maybe a quarter of time, walked the rest of the way and barely made it back home still able to breathe. It was really only then I took the time to look back and realize that greater than normal physical exertion would leave me gasping for breath.
The doctor listened to my symptoms, asked me if I smoked and then put his stethoscope to my chest and listened. He pulled back and said my wheezing sounded more serious than bronchitis and asked me again if I had never smoked cigarettes or cigars in my life. Again I told him no and it was the way he shook his head that I think stimulated me to tell him about my childhood and teenage years growing up among the smoky culture of Gypsies.
At which point he made arrangements for me to take a spirometry test. A spirometer is a device with a mouthpiece at one end. I wrapped my lips around the mouthpiece, inhaled and then blew out quickly and fully. The measurements of the spirometer are basically for the purposes of determining lung capacity possessed versus where you lung capacity should be. My measurements place me at the higher end of the mild COPD and the lower end of moderate COPD.
Which, according to my doctor, is a pretty accurate representation of the typical case of COPD in people who don’t smoke themselves, but spend too much time around those who do smoke. Since my symptoms are not severe and the worst of the shortness of breath and difficulty breathing only manifest themselves after physical exertion, my doctor prescribed a short-acting Symbicort inhaler to be used only when necessary.
Over the past few years the necessity has decreased significantly. In fact, today, I only use the inhaler when I find it exceptionally difficult to regain control of my breathing.