Denise H.’s Story
Denise, age 66, never smoked cigarettes, but her husband Brian H. smoked for most of his life. He had his first heart attack from smoking when he was 35 years old. Denise took responsibility for everything in their lives, from coordinating Brian’s medical care to managing their household. She eventually quit her job to care for Brian full-time.
In the 30 years that followed, Brian has had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart bypass surgery, a heart transplant, lung cancer, and part of his lung removed because he smoked. Denise has been by Brian’s side through every doctor’s appointment, scan, surgery, and recovery.
Being a caregiver to her husband could be “all-consuming,” Denise said. To relieve stress and avoid burning out, Denise learned to take care of herself. She went out for walks or to the gym to exercise. Her advice for other caregivers is to take time for themselves: “Find at least an hour and do what you want, otherwise you’ll go crazy.”
Although it has been a difficult experience, Denise said that caring for Brian through his illnesses brought the couple closer together. “We were soulmates,” Denise said. “We were meant to be together.”
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Denise was 21 years old when she met her future husband, Brian H. He was 19 years old and in the Air Force. They were married within a year, and on their way to having two children soon after. “We were soulmates,” Denise said. “We were meant to be together.”
Brian had already been smoking cigarettes for several years by then. Denise didn’t smoke, but she grew up with parents who did, so she was used to it. “There wasn’t a lot of information in those days about how dangerous cigarettes were,” Denise said. “There was just that warning on the side of the package from the Surgeon General, and you don’t pay attention to that when you’re young.”
Brian was 35 years old and stationed in England when he had a heart attack from smoking. Denise immediately flew from Texas to be by his side. It was the first of many smoking-related health problems Brian and Denise would weather together over the next 30 years of their marriage. During that time, Brian has had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart bypass surgery, a heart transplant, lung cancer, and part of his lung removed because he smoked.
“When things got really hairy with me, the things Denise had to give up and things she had to do were a lot more intrusive to her life and chaotic to our family dynamic,” Brian said. “There were a lot of years when I wasn’t very stable, and Denise had to step up and sacrifice a lot.”
Denise took responsibility for everything, from coordinating Brian’s medical care to managing their household. She eventually quit her job so she could be there to care for Brian. “When you have a sick spouse, you’re driving all the time, you’re paying all the bills, you’re taking out the trash, you’re doing all the laundry,” she said. “It is a full-time job.”
Being a caregiver to her husband could be “all-consuming,” Denise said. Some days she struggled with feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Other times she felt overwhelmed with terror that her best friend might die. When Brian’s health was at its worst, she checked on him again and again while he was asleep to make sure he was still breathing.
Denise found ways to relieve her stress and avoid burning out. Whenever she had the opportunity, she would go out for a walk. She could fit in three miles when Brian was napping. To maintain her own health, she started going to the gym three times a week and eating better. Her advice for caregivers is to take time for themselves: “Find at least an hour and do what you want, otherwise you’ll go crazy.”
Brian finally quit smoking for good in 2009 and had a heart transplant in 2012. Then, in 2017, Brian was diagnosed with lung cancer and had surgery to remove part of his lung. Together Denise and Brian continue battling the damage to his body from cigarettes. “Life is not always easy,” Denise said. “You just deal with it the best you can and move forward.”
“I owe my life to her; literally, not figuratively,” Brian said. “Now I take every opportunity to repay that debt, which can never be repaid.”
Although it has been a difficult experience, Denise said that caring for Brian through his illnesses brought the couple closer together. In 2019, they celebrated 45 years marriage by renewing their vows in front of family and friends. They decided not to wait until their 50th anniversary because Brian’s health could change at any time. “Every year counts,” Brian said. “While we have an opportunity for a party, we’re going to take it.”