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James Gallagher

"It takes a long time to accept it, especially when you've caused it yourself"

“I hold my hands up, smoking was a big factor for me.”

MORE THAN 380,000 people in Ireland live with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

COPD is a condition whereby airways in the lungs get smaller, making it difficult to empty out air. This can result in shortness of breath or tiredness. COPD is a term used to include chronic bronchitis, emphysema or a combination of both conditions.

Sheila Desmond from Ballyfermot (58) gave up smoking 11 years ago. She was diagnosed with COPD seven years later.

“I thought I’d escaped it but I didn’t,” she said, adding: ”Definitely give up – it’s just not worth it. That’s the advice I give everyone about smoking.”

After suffering from near-continual chest infections for two years, her GP referred her to a specialist.

I wasn’t sure what was happening, it was very a frustrating time – I was sick, sick, sick. I was trying to work as well, I felt like I was letting everyone down when I wasn’t at work.

The 58-year-old gave up her job as a volunteer coordinator with the CareLocal charity in April as a result of her condition.

Getting up in the morning is a nightmare. I can’t face the day until 11am, until my medication kicks in … If it’s clammy and damp I’ll struggle to walk to the local shops. On a good day I can walk to the shops if I take my time. On a really bad day it’s like an elephant sitting on your chest.

Sheila doesn’t have emphysema, but she does suffer from asthma and is just over a four week dose of pneumonia. People with COPD are prone to infections as their immune system is reduced. Her condition has started to affect her bones: she also has pre-osteoporosis.

To manage her COPD, Sheila uses several inhalers throughout the day, a tablet to help her breathe at night, and steroids when she needs them. The steroids have led her to put in weight, worsening her breathing. “It’s a Catch 22 situation,” she said. Her doctors at St James’ Hospital in Dublin are monitoring her heart and other organs.

Shutterstock-151608623 Shutterstock Shutterstock

Sheila’s 29-year-old daughter recently gave up smoking because she had developed a bad cough.

When working with CareLocal, Sheila met people in the latter stages of COPD. Two of her friends have passed away from the disease.

She recalled being present when an elderly friend died: “I was holding his hand as he passed from this life, thinking: ‘Is this what’s ahead of me?’”

Sheila noted that it has been quite difficult to accept her slower pace of life. She said she wishes she could still walk her dogs and play with her grandchildren.

It takes a long time to accept the condition, especially when you know that you’ve caused it yourself. It’s changed my identity, I’m not the person I was 6 years ago.

‘I hold my hands up, smoking was a big factor for me’

James Gallagher from Ennis was diagnosed with COPD in February 2011.

He too had serious chest infections that “weren’t inclined to go away”.

I would have been a heavy smoker in my time. Being born in the time I was born into, cigarettes were everywhere. There was no legislation, you could even buy loose cigarettes as kids. I was smoking with friends and, of course, with the few pints cigarette smoking increases.

James worked in ceramic tile delivery and as such was exposed to “quite a lot of adhesive”.

I’m sure it is a factor in my condition but, I hold my hands up, smoking was a big factor for me.

He gave up cigarettes in 2005, after suffering from a TIA or mini-stroke.

The cardiologist after an angiogram said to me: ‘If you give up smoking I’ll see you in a year and a half, if you don’t I’ll never see you again.
I had to at least try but I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I love my cigarettes … I was very busy at work one day and put [my inhaler-type cigarette] in my pocket. A while later I went to take it out and it looked dirty. I threw it away. Psychologically that was important for me, I knew I was done … Quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for the condition.

James noted how important it is to have a proactive attitude when dealing with COPD and exercise if you can. He walks everyday and lifts weights but admits: “walking up inclines is tough”.

“You can defer [COPD] for many years,” he said.

His cousin, who James said was “more like a brother”, bassed away from COPD in February 2013.

“I watched the devastation it had on [his family], it had a very harrowing effect on them. The thing that struck me, is that it’s not just about an individual, a wider circle is affected.”

He has set up a support group for COPD sufferers in Ennis and said he wants to “foster understanding about the condition”.

I wouldn’t think there’s a family in Ireland that doesn’t know someone affected by COPD … It’s one of those illnesses that people don’t want to talk about. There’s a stigma attached to it because it’s connected to smoking. Some people think it’s almost like you brought it on yourself.

“In the support group we have a member who worked in construction all his life, he never smoked but was affected breathing in the construction dust,” he said.

‘Save Your Breath’

Last week, COPD Support Ireland launched its ‘Save Your Breath’ campaign. The group wants greater screening for the condition and is calling on people to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Do you cough several times every day, several days of the week?
  2. Have you been coughing like this for more than three months?
  3. Do you cough up mucus/phlegm most days?
  4. Do you feel breathless from physical work or moderate exercise?
  5. Are you a current or former smoker?
  6. Do you work, or have you ever worked, in an environment where there is exposure to pollution, fumes, dust or smoke?
  7. Is there a history of lung conditions in your family?
  8. Are you over the age of 35?

If people answer yes to four or more of the above questions, they are advised to visit their doctor to be tested for COPD.

COPD save your breath 05 Launch of 'Save Your Breath' campaign

In Ireland in 2013, almost 3,600 people died from respiratory diseases (primarily COPD), making it the third most common cause of death after heart disease and cancer.

Ireland’s death rate from respiratory disease is 1.5 times than the European Union average and the second highest in Western Europe. The majority of people who have COPD are or were smokers. However, up to 20% of cases are also due to exposure to occupational dust, chemicals, vapours or other airborne pollutants in the workplace.

Speaking at the launch, Damien Peelo, Executive Director of COPD Support Ireland, noted that just 15 hospitals provide spirometry (breathing) testing to screen for the condition. He called on the HSE to prioritise the rollout of COPD outreach programmes to every acute hospital in the country.

More information about COPD is available here.

‘Luke’s Christmas wish is that his mammy gets new lungs’ 

‘It’s like someone beating you up’: The invisible illness no one’s talking about

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