Michael P.’s Story
“I was suffocating to death!” That’s how Michael—a veteran, an Alaska Native, and member of the Tlingit tribe—thinks 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 condition also referred to as chronic bronchitis or emphysema—that makes it harder and harder to breathe. He ignored the symptoms until age 52, when he awoke gasping for air. He quit smoking that day.
Since then, Michael has had to have part of his lungs removed to improve his condition. However, COPD does not go away, and Michael now needs a lung transplant. He desperately wants to be around for his grandchildren, but he feels he’s running out of time.
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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)—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 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 says.
Michael was 52 years old when he made the decision to quit smoking for good. It was a day he says he will 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 remembers 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 says.
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 to help healthier lung tissue 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.”