FLORENCE, S.C. – Pulmonary lung disease affects millions of people every year. South Carolina ranks 36th among all states in the nation for diagnosed cases of lung cancer, according to the American Lung Association.
This week, with Pulmonary Rehabilitation Week, the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR) is raising awareness about the role of pulmonary rehabilitation in enhancing the quality of life for those living with lung disease.
People diagnosed with asthma, chronic bronchitis, sleep apnea, COPD, lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and lung transplants can benefit from participating in pulmonary rehabilitation.
“Everybody thinks people with lung disease smoked cigarettes, but that’s just not true,” said Jewell Hammons, the cardiopulmonary rehabilitation manager at Carolinas Hospital System. “Pulmonary fibrosis, for example, is a horrible disease, because it progresses so quickly.”
Hammons said patients from all walks of life and age need pulmonary rehab for many reasons. Some have spent most of their lives working around diesel engines or in other lines of work.
Iris Long, of Sumter, served 12 years in the U.S. Air Force working on jet engines. Almost two years ago, she started having problems with everyday tasks on her farm. After a visit to a pulmonologist at the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, she was referred to Carolinas Hospital System to start pulmonary rehabilitation in June of 2016.
“Originally they (pulmonologists at the VA) thought activities around the farm were the cause,” Long said. “I knew it wasn’t the barn, because I’d been around it for all my life. I wore a mask and overalls and took other precautions, but I didn’t get any better.”
At first, rehabilitation at Carolinas was having positive results. Then in January the rehab team started to notice she was getting progressively worse.
“We were trying to help her raise her functional capacity,” Hammons said. “After six months of starting our program, we recognized there were problems and were able to get her a second opinion.”
The second opinion came from Dr. Ramzy Hourany of Carolinas Pulmonology, affiliated with Carolinas Medical Alliance at Carolinas Hospital System. He diagnosed her with pulmonary fibrosis.
Not much later, she went on a leisure trip to Charleston despite not feeling well. Arriving in Charleston, she went straight to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) to get checked out – just in case. MUSC determined she needed a double lung transplant and helped her get on the transplant list. The catch was she had to stay in Charleston while she waited for a transplant. Almost exactly a month later, she received her lung transplant.
“The rehab before the transplant helped a lot,” Long said. “If I hadn’t got here (to Carolinas) when I did, and they weren’t as wonderful as they are at doing what they do, I wouldn’t have made it to transplant. It’s awesome what they can do. They knew I was in trouble before I even knew I was in trouble.”
She returned to post-transplant rehab in January at Carolinas. Since then she has continued to improve and soon hopes to start riding her beloved horses.
“Pulmonary rehab was the only reason I was able to go through with the transplant,” Long said. “If it hadn’t been for that, I would have never made it. People need to know this kind of rehab is really in their best interest. I want to make sure and thank the donor for my lungs. I am truly blessed that someone’s family made a decision to help me live, in what was probably a very sad time for them.”
With a transplant, Hammons said typically a patient can expect to live five years or more. Carolinas Hospital System Pulmonary Rehabilitation is home to the only AACVPR-certified facility in the area.
“Every pulmonary rehab facility is only as good as the people who work there,” Hourany said. “It takes a multidisciplinary kind of approach. If you are short of breath, you are anxious. By being around other people experiencing the same symptoms as you is just as important in your rehabilitation.”