Brian H.’s Story
Brian, age 65, grew up in Chicago and started smoking cigarettes at a young age because he thought it was cool. Although Brian’s parents found out he was smoking at age 12, he continued sneaking cigarettes and was smoking a pack of cigarettes per day by the time he reached eighth grade. Brian’s parents smoked, and he recalls that everyone around him smoked. “Smoking had become ingrained in my mind,” he said.
Brian joined the Air Force at age 19 and married his sweetheart, Denise, at age 20. Although he enjoyed his job in the military, he had many responsibilities. As a result, Brian struggled with job stress and often smoked to cope.
One day, while stationed in England, Brian had severe chest pains while walking at work. “I was out of breath and sweating, and the pain got worse,” he said. Suddenly, he collapsed. Brian was having a heart attack at age 35.
Over the years, Brian’s health problems worsened. He had several heart surgeries, including one in which a defibrillator—a device that helps regulate abnormal heartbeats—was put in his chest. At age 46, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that causes airflow blockage and breathing-related problems.
Eventually, Brian’s heart became so damaged that he needed a heart transplant, but as long as he continued to smoke, he wasn’t eligible. He finally quit smoking for good at age 55, and three years later, he received a new heart.
While Brian remained smokefree, the damage caused by years of smoking continued to affect his body. At age 63, Brian was diagnosed with lung cancer and had surgery to remove part of his lung.
Through it all, Denise has been by Brian’s side. She even quit her job to care for her husband full-time. “There were a lot of years when I wasn’t very stable, and Denise had to step up and sacrifice a lot,” Brian said.
Brian is glad that he quit smoking for good. He’s extremely grateful that the lung cancer could be treated with surgery, and that he won’t need radiation or chemotherapy. “Every day is a gift to spend time with my wife and grandkids,” he said.
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Brian, age 65, grew up in Chicago. Both of his parents smoked. Brian started smoking at a young age, and by the time he was in eighth grade, he was smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. “My parents found out that I was smoking when I was 12, but that didn’t stop me,” he said.
At age 19, Brian joined the Air Force and was assigned to work at an Air Force base in California. He soon fell in love and married his sweetheart, Denise. Brian had many responsibilities as a master sergeant in the Air Force. As a result, he struggled with job stress and often smoked cigarettes to cope.
One morning, while stationed in England, Brian had chest pains while walking at work. He was out of breath and sweating, and the pain became intense and worsened. Suddenly, he collapsed. Brian was having a heart attack at age 35. The next day, he had an angioplasty—a procedure in which a surgeon uses a balloon-like device to open up a blocked blood vessel. Denise flew overseas immediately to be by her husband’s side.
Brian slowly regained his strength but kept smoking. “The moment I walked out of the hospital, I started sneaking cigarettes again,” he said.
While on leave after his heart attack, Brian had more chest pains. He was admitted to an Air Force hospital in San Antonio, where he was diagnosed with a serious arrhythmia—an irregular heartbeat that can be life threatening. Brian underwent surgery to have a defibrillator put in his chest. A defibrillator is a device that helps regulate abnormal heartbeats.
Denise quit her job to care for Brian full-time. She took over responsibility for everything, from coordinating his medical care to managing their household. “I owe my life to her; literally, not figuratively,” Brain said.
Brian had several surgeries over the years for heart problems related to smoking. Eventually, his doctor told him that his heart was so damaged that he needed a transplant. This would be the beginning of a long and difficult journey for Brian and his family. Brian understood that not everybody who needs a transplant is able to get one, but he hoped that he would be one of the lucky ones.
In 2000, Brian was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition often caused by smoking or secondhand smoke exposure that makes it harder and harder to breathe and can cause death.
In 2007, Brian’s name was added to a national heart transplant waiting list. He and his family were thrilled. But that feeling didn’t last long. One evening, Brian’s doctor called with some bad news. Brian’s name had been removed from the transplant list. The reason? Brian’s lab results showed that he still was still smoking. “It was caught in a routine blood test for nicotine exposure,” he said. Brian and Denise were devastated.
Brian had run out of treatment options, and his health was getting worse. He was determined to quit smoking so that he could have a chance to live. In the spring of 2009, Brian joined a smoking cessation class in a military hospital. “I did everything they told me to do, and I never looked back,” he said.
Because he remained smokefree, he eventually was put back on the list for a heart transplant. In 2012, Brian received a long-awaited heart transplant. The transplant gave him new hope, but he understood the seriousness of the surgery. “They told me that a heart transplant is not a cure. I have a weakened immune system, so I can’t attend events where there are lots of people and little kids,” he said.
Brian’s heart transplant, a healthier lifestyle, and quitting cigarettes for good gave him a new outlook on life. But the damage caused by years of smoking continued to affect his body. In 2017, at age 63, Brian was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had surgery to remove part of his lung.
Now living in Texas, Brian is glad he quit smoking for good. “Every day is a gift to spend time with my wife and grandkids. If I’m around after everything I’ve been through, other people can have hope too.”
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