Rebecca C.’s Story
Growing up in California, Rebecca, age 43, told herself she would never take up smoking. But around the age of 16, Rebecca started smoking her mother’s discarded cigarettes to fit in with some older kids who smoked. Over the next 26 years, Rebecca’s addiction to cigarettes grew until she was smoking a couple of packs a day.
Rebecca was 42 years old when she started feeling pain in her right pinky toe. The pain grew so intense that Rebecca ended up in the hospital. She was shocked to learned she had Buerger’s disease, a condition of swollen or blocked blood vessels that typically affects the hands or feet first. Buerger’s is almost exclusively linked to tobacco use.
Rebecca had surgery to restore blood flow to her toes, but the damage was already done. Three of her toes needed to be amputated. The decision was made to remove all five toes on Rebecca’s right foot to ensure more stability. She had to adjust to using special shoe inserts and is not able to wear all the shoes she once could.
Rebecca quit smoking to stop Buerger’s from coming back to other areas of her body, and she is determined to stay smokefree. To people who still smoke, Rebecca warns: “It becomes real when it happens to you. Don’t let it happen to you.”
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Both of Rebecca’s parents and her grandmother smoked when she was growing up in California. Her mother couldn’t drive, so she would send Rebecca to the store to buy cigarettes for her.
As a child, Rebecca told herself she would never take up smoking. But around the age of 16, Rebecca wanted to fit in with some of the older kids who smoked, so she started smoking her mother’s discarded cigarettes. Over the next 26 years, Rebecca’s addiction to cigarettes grew until she was smoking a couple of packs a day.
She was able to quit for about a year in 2014 but started again when she was spending time around friends who smoked. She would tell herself she would just smoke one cigarette. That one quickly turned into more. “You can never go back to smoking just one. It’s either nothing or everything.”
Rebecca was 42 years old when she started feeling pain in her right pinky toe. She brushed off the discomfort at first, blaming it on a pair of ill-fitted shoes. An urgent care doctor told her it was probably just a bruised toe that would heal in a few weeks. But the pain got worse. Rebecca felt like her foot was being crushed in a vice.
After several sleepless nights, Rebecca went to the emergency room. She spent the next eight days in the hospital. One of the doctors recognized the pain was related to the blood flow in her foot. He diagnosed Rebecca with Buerger’s disease, a condition of swollen or blocked blood vessels that typically first affects the hands and feet. Buerger’s is almost exclusively linked to tobacco use, and quitting tobacco is the only way to stop the disease.
“It was hard to believe that smoking was responsible for this,” Rebecca said. “It didn’t make any sense to me.”
Rebecca had surgery to restore blood flow to her toes, but the damage was already done. Three of her toes needed to be amputated. The decision was made to remove all five toes on Rebecca’s right foot to minimize the tripping hazard and ensure more stability.
It wasn’t until later that the reality of the damage caused by smoking cigarettes started sinking in for Rebecca. “I had a moment where I just broke down,” Rebecca remembered. “I went through my closet and started making a pile of shoes that I could probably wear versus shoes that I could never wear again.”
These days, Rebecca only wears shoes that have a strap to hold her foot in place. She has an insert that fits over the nub of her foot, but she doesn’t like the way it feels so she usually chooses to go without it. She misses wearing sandals and flip-flops. “It seems like that’s so trivial and not a big deal, but it can be discouraging and upsetting, and it makes me sad,” she explained.
Another new experience for Rebecca is managing her balance, especially when walking down stairs. Sometimes she falls, so she walks cautiously, her hand stretched out in front of her for protection.
After her surgery, Rebecca said quitting cigarettes “just made sense.” Her doctor explained that Buerger’s could come back to other areas of her body if she started smoking again. “I won’t go back to smoking again,” Rebecca said. “I can’t. I don’t want to lose any more.”
At 43, Rebecca considers herself a positive person. She and her husband recently moved to Indiana to start a new chapter of their life. She sometimes struggles with feelings of loss, but then she remembers her grandmother telling her to count her blessings. “I’ve had so many blessings, I can’t even count them all,” Rebecca said. “I’m very fortunate.”
To people who still smoke, Rebecca warns: “It becomes real when it happens to you. Don’t let it happen you.”