By 2001, Grace Anne Dorney Koppel had been making excuses for why she couldn’t do certain activities for years before she realized something was seriously wrong with her health.
“If people invited me to go for a walk, I’d say, ‘I have work to finish,’” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She also noticed that she had shortness of breath when she would go up a flight of stairs. “I attributed that to being middle aged and out of shape,” she says.
Grace Anne always saw her doctor for annual physicals but, in 2001, she made an appointment early because she wasn’t able to walk the equivalent of a city block without stopping to catch her breath. Her doctor gave her a “complete battery of tests” but didn’t check her lung function. “I was told I was in very good condition,” she says. “Three weeks later, I collapsed.”
She was on vacation when her symptoms grew even worse. As soon as she returned home, she collected her medical records from her family doctor and went to a major medical center thinking she had a rare disease. There she was given a non-invasive breathing test called a pulmonary function test (PFT) that shows how well the lungs are working, and she was finally given a proper diagnosis. “The minute that we had the results of that test, the doctors realized that I had very severe, very advanced COPD,” Grace Anne says.
COPD is an acronym for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a chronic and progressive lung disease that causes shortness of breath, wheezing, frequent coughing, and chest tightness, according to the COPD Foundation.
When Grace Anne was diagnosed, she had just 26 percent of normal lung function. “I was not expected to live more than a few years,” she says. Grace Anne says she was “terrified” to learn her diagnosis. “My doctor asked if I’d made end of life preparations,” she says. “They thought it was terminal.”
After receiving the diagnosis, Grace Anne and her husband, former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, “quite literally held each other all night long, crying,” he shares with Yahoo Lifestyle.
Grace Anne was put through more testing and needed to use a wheelchair to get around because the hospital was so large. “I could not make it from one appointment to the other without the wheelchair,” she says.
She was prescribed pulmonary rehabilitation, along with several inhalers and the corticosteroid prednisone, which is designed to treat inflammation. “I was in really bad shape,” she says. “I couldn’t really do the things that everyone takes for granted.” She could dress herself and do some of her work as an attorney, but she had to move slowly. “It’s like doling out your day in teaspoons,” she says. “I would try to eat food before I got breathless. Staircases looked like mountains.”
In 2005, Grace Anne was on supplemental oxygen 24/7 and was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors removed a lobe of her lung, which didn’t help her pre-existing breathing issues. “For someone who has COPD, to lose a lobe of your lung is a very significant event,” she says.
Still, she managed to regain her strength and cut way down on her supplemental oxygen use. Now, she only uses supplemental oxygen when she flies at an altitude over 30,000 feet. Grace Anne now works out on a treadmill for 40 minutes a day, six to seven days a week and does breathing exercises. She’s also learned how to live with her symptoms and how to pace herself. “I work full time and I lead a very full life,” she says. “It’s now 18 years since I was diagnosed and I still breathe better now than I did then. Knowledge, adherence to medications, and exercise are powerful.”
Grace Anne believes that her former smoking habit led to her disease. “I was a heavy smoker for many, many years,” she says, noting that she gave it up 10 years before her diagnosis. She also grew up in a family of smokers. However, she points out, “anyone can get COPD. Of those diagnosed, 25 percent have never smoked a cigarette. It’s environmental, occupational…it’s in the air we breathe.”
Now, Grace Anne and Ted are passionate about raising COPD awareness. They created the Dorney-Koppel Foundation, which has co-funded 12 pulmonary rehabilitation clinics across the country. “There are so few facilities that provide pulmonary rehabilitation,” Ted Koppel tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Grace Anne is also on the board of directors for the COPD Foundation and is its immediate past president. “This is a disease that kills 160,000 Americans every year, and most people have never even heard of it,” says Ted.
Adds Grace Anne: “COPD is a very significant health problem. If you have a constant cough and breathlessness doing things you easily did before, and you are a smoker or ex-smoker or worked in jobs that exposed you to dust, chemicals or smoke, you’ve got to get tested. With diagnosis and treatment, you can live a good, long life.”
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