Michael P.’s Story
“I was suffocating to death!” That’s how Michael—a veteran, an Alaska Native, and member of the Tlingit tribe—thought back to why he quit smoking. A smoker since he was 9 years old, Michael was addicted to cigarettes for most of his adult life, including the 2 years he served in the U.S. Army. At 44, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—a group of diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that cause airflow blockage and make it harder and harder to breathe. He ignored the symptoms until age 52, when he awoke gasping for air. He quit smoking that day.
To improve his condition, Michael had to have part of his lungs removed. However, COPD does not go away, and Michael needed a lung transplant. He desperately wanted to be around for his grandchildren, but felt he was running out of time. Michael died in 2020 at the age of 64.
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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 (COPD) because of his smoking. COPD is a lung disease 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 said, 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 cigarettes 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 said.
Michael was 52 years old when he made the decision to quit smoking for good. It was a day he said he would never forget. He 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 remembered riding in the ambulance, wondering if he was going to die. Michael never smoked another cigarette. “Losing your breath is losing your life force,” he said.
Michael continued to fight for his life. To help improve his breathing, he had lung volume reduction surgery. Diseased parts of his lungs were removed to help healthier lung tissue work better. After he quit smoking, his condition improved slightly, but his doctor said Michael needed a lung transplant. Michael was unsure he would survive the surgery in his weakened state.
Michael enjoyed the company of his daughter and two grandchildren and struggled with the thought of having to say good-bye. “I can’t bear the thought of not watching them grow up,” he said. He wished 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 said. “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 died in 2020 at the age of 64.