Most smokers are aware that their habit is likely to cause health problems for them down the road, and David Rich is no exception. So, when he developed a chronic cough and shortness of breath in his early 40s, he simply chalked it up to a side effect of being a smoker.
“I’ve been smoking since I was 13, so I figured it was inevitable,” Rich tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Still, he didn’t think much of it and didn’t see a doctor. “Being a typical male, I thought, ‘If you don’t get the diagnosis, you ain’t got it,’” he says. “Not much of anything about my health was going through my head. Just denial.”
Rich says his doctor would repeatedly point out that his lungs sounded raspy when he’d go in for a physical. “I’d just say, ‘Yeah, I smoke,’ and leave it at that,” he says.
But by the time he was 49, Rich came down with pneumonia twice in 30 days. “When I first got sick, I refused to stop doing what I was doing because it was ‘too important,’” he says. “I probably lost about half of my lung capacity in those two episodes.” After that, he was finally diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term used to describe a group of lung diseases that block airflow and make it hard to breathe.
“From that point on, some type of intervention became necessary for me to be able to continue to breathe,” Rich says. “But if I had not had pneumonia twice, I probably still would not be diagnosed.”
Rich’s doctor attributed his COPD to his smoking habit and other bad habits he did over the years. “I’ve acid-washed swimming pools with no respirator and have spray painted automobiles for years without anything than a paper face mask,” Rich says. “I was on a fire department for 10 years and if you put on an air pack, you were just a pansy. Those attitudes don’t exist much now, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you felt like you had to be a macho man.”
Despite his diagnosis, Rich is still a smoker
He’s tried to quit, but it just hasn’t stuck. Ten years ago, Rich says he stopped smoking for 70 days. “I was just absolutely miserable,” he says. Now, he smokes between half a pack to three-quarters of a pack a day.
Rich, who is now 57, says he didn’t expect to live this long. “My grandfather died at 47, and my dad died at 61,” he says. “I really never expected to get here.” He says his doctor would like for him to quit smoking, but he’s still able to be fairly active despite his condition and habit. “When you look at my chart and see what my breathing capacity is, I should be sitting on the end of the couch, hooked up to oxygen, and doing nothing,” Rich says. “But I still ride horses, still load hay, and carry bags of feed. I’ve never been hooked to oxygen.”
But his COPD does affect his life. Rich, who owns a horseback riding business with his wife in Florida, says he has to catch his breath a lot during the day. “I can carry 50 pound bags of feed, but I‘ve got to stop between bags to rest up and catch my breath,” he says. “If I’m walking up a steep hill, I might have to stop and catch my breath. My life is tremendously affected by COPD, but it’s not stopped me.” His COPD also prevents him from swimming in the ocean like he once loved to do, but he’s found a workaround: He simply takes a float with him.
“Through my life, I have been the type of person that every time someone tells me I can’t do something, I have a ‘hold my beer’ moment,’” he says. As a result, he tries to live his life as normally as possible, even with a chronic disease. “COPD kills you one inch at a time,” he says. “You use your lung capacity or lose it. My doctor thinks the activity level I’ve done has kind of been my own pulmonary rehab.”
Rich also takes several types of medications to help him breathe, as well as mood elevators, which he says are a “very important part” of treating his disease. “I’m a very positive, upbeat individual, but there are some days that having COPD still gets me down,” he says. “People of no faith, who are negative by nature…I can’t imagine how depressed they get.”
He says he’s decided that he’s not going to die of COPD. “I might die with COPD, but it’s not going to kill me,” he says. Rich urges other people who suspect something is off with their health to see a doctor and not wait like he did. And, if you do have COPD, “get off your can and do something,” he says. “If you’re going to die, die with it — not from it.”
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