Michael started smoking when he was 9 years old and his younger sister offered him a cigarette. Years later, Michael, a U.S. Army veteran, an Alaska Native, and member of the Tlingit tribe, would develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD—a condition caused by smoking that makes it harder and harder to breathe and can cause death. It wasn’t until he nearly suffocated that he decided to quit smoking for good.
“Smoking was something I did to fit in,” he says, remembering why he started smoking. “At first it was unpleasant, but the more I smoked, the more I became addicted to cigarettes.” In the early days, he would hide the fact that he smoked and even smoked other people’s cigarette butts. Even though Michael lost his father, sister, and many other people in his community to smoking-related diseases, he continued to smoke.
Michael served in the U.S. Army from 1977–1979. He smoked throughout that period. Even though he made attempts to quit, he always came up with an excuse to start smoking again. At age 44, Michael was diagnosed with COPD. “I would wake up with ‘smoker’s cough.’ That was a warning sign that I ignored,” he says.
The day Michael made the decision to quit smoking for good was a day he won’t forget. He was 52 years old and woke up struggling to breathe. “It was 4 hours of stark raving terror. I was suffocating to death. Every cell in my body was screaming for oxygen!” He remembers riding in the ambulance, wondering if he was going to die. He never smoked another cigarette. “Losing your breath is losing your life force.”
Today, Michael continues to fight for his life. To help improve his breathing, he had lung volume reduction surgery. Diseased parts of his lungs were removed so healthier lung tissue could work better. After he quit smoking, his condition improved slightly, but his doctor says Michael needs a lung transplant. In his weakened state, Michael doesn’t know if he would survive the surgery.
Michael enjoys the company of his daughter and two grandchildren but struggles with the thought of having to say good-bye. “I can’t bear the thought of not watching them grow up,” he says. “I don’t know how to tell them.” He wishes he had more energy to play with them. “I used to play volleyball and hike in the mountains, but I don’t do that anymore,” he says. “I avoid anything that involves running and carrying things. I stay away from smoke and exhaust. Now, it’s all about friends, good memories, and living a little bit longer.”
Michael, 57, Alaska; diagnosed with COPD at age 44