WHEN a glamorous Italian lady taught Mary Boyle how to inhale a cigarette during her student days in France, Mary never thought she would have to eventually make a choice about whether to breathe or to smoke.
“When I was diagnosed with COPD — Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease — in 2005, I never realised the implications,” says Mary, from The Lough, who is a mother of three and a grandmother of three.
“From about the age of 35, I was experiencing ongoing chest infections and a shortness of breath.
“I had to make the choice. Would I smoke or would I breathe? I was far less active than I used to be. There were much more restrictions in my ability to do things. The consultant-referred pulmonary rehab exercise programme I undertook helped me enormously,” says Mary.
“Exercise is the key to managing COPD. It has made a huge difference to me. Some days I can do more activity than other days. The lake is on my doorstep which is wonderful. I can walk from seat to seat there sometimes, or I can walk the inside path while my companion walks along the outside path. I love being active to a degree because I was always used to being active. The pulmonary nurse team and the physio-therapists at CUH and at St Finbarr’s have been really supportive.”
Mary never thought her long love affair with nicotine would later debilitate her life and her lifestyle.
“I was a ‘black’ smoker,” says Mary. “I smoked 24/7. My parents both smoked like many of their generation. They were avid smokers.”
When Mary and her husband, Joe, lived in Zambia for two years, they tapped into the black market to feed their habit.
“Joe wasn’t a dedicated smoker like I was,” says Mary, who taught French in Zambia. “He might have a pack of 10 cigarettes in his pocket for a couple of days. I smoked at least a pack of 20 every day. When we discovered cigarettes were hard to come by in the North Province in Zambia, we did deals with the people who did midnight flits from Tasmania carrying cigarettes. Whenever I see photographs of our time in Zambia; I am always out front, fag in hand!”
Joe took his nicotine habit in hand, but Mary was addicted.
“Joe gave up,” says Mary. “I used to think I was weak, that I had no back-bone because I couldn’t give up. I was totally addicted.”
Was she worried about the ill effects cigarettes cause?
“The anti-smoking campaigns had begun here by 1978, when we returned from Zambia,” says Mary. “They were already ahead of us when we were on the way home.”
When Mary’s children were on the way, it didn’t prove enough of a deterrent for her to give up smoking.
“I tried loads of times,” says Mary. “I even read the Alan Carr book.”
She went to great lengths to feed her habit.
“As the children got older, I went behind the garden shed to smoke,” says Mary. “I was the one smoking behind the garden shed; not them!”
Mary’s natural fitness got left behind.
“I was always the one first into the fray,” she says. “Instead of walking along a table or counter-top, I would climb up to get to the cupboards. Now I couldn’t. I began to get repeated chest infections and I had a wracking cough.”
It was time to take action.
“My GP sent me to a specialist. Tests and scans showed signs of emphysema. I was prescribed antibiotics.”
They didn’t do the trick.
“I took the tablets and then I’d light up a cigarette,” says Mary.
“I had no death wish. I was just addicted to nicotine. I couldn’t give up.”
Something had to give.
“In 2005, I was diagnosed with COPD,” says Mary. “A pattern had emerged whereby the restriction on my ability to do things had became debilitating. My grand-children, full of energy, left me standing. I had no energy to keep up with them.
“I worried that I was holding people up, going for a walk, going shopping. I watched a travel programme on TV about Barcelona and thought, I could no longer walk the length of La Rambles.”
It was time to make the choice.
“My respiratory specialist and my GP referred me to the eight week pulmonary exercise programme and slowly, and by adhering to the programme, I began to feel better and regain more energy. Taking the advice and helping myself was instrumental in managing my condition.
“COPD Support Ireland, and the Cork support group were great sources for help,” says Mary.
“It is great to meet people who understand and who realise that you are not just lazy. They inspired me. We inspire each other and we pick up one another when we have to.”
Giving up her life-long habit wasn’t a cake-walk for Mary, now in her late 60s.
“I still had to take antibiotics and steroids, which aren’t ideal long-term. But you take what you need. I realised the efficacy of exercise. It made a huge difference,” says Mary.
Life is different now.
“It is about accepting your limitations,” she says.
Mary’s can-do, positive attitude knows no limits.
“I think I got my positive attitude from my dad,” she says, smiling.
“After Joe died, I ran a fund-raiser in 2003 for the Irish Cancer Society. Then I was invited to come and work for the society. It was ideal.”
Mary enjoys her new-found freedom from nicotine as much as she can.
“I’m off to Yorkshire to visit my son,” she says.
And she will re-visit the French town where she inhaled her first cigarette.
“I remember Marie-Therese showed me to blow the smoke out through my nostrils!” says Mary.
Now, Mary is glad she doesn’t do that anymore. Life has other things to offer her.
“Everybody has a time to give up,” says Mary.
She has a magnet on her fridge that reads; ‘If change wasn’t possible; there would be no butterflies.’
For information on Cork COPD support group, call Mary Boyle on: 087 1338265.
COPD Support Ireland is the umbrella body for 20 local COPD support groups. They will host a national patient conference tomorrow, “Let’s Get Moving on COPD” for people with COPD.
The conference comes against a backdrop of figures showing a total of 3,912 hospital admissions in Cork due to COPD between 2015 and 20171 and it is the most common cause of disease-specific emergency admission to hospital among adults in Ireland.
In fact, it’s estimated that there are almost half a million people in Ireland with COPD, however, many do not know that they have it. See www.copd.ie.
TIPS FOR LIVING WITH COPD
Give up smoking: Stopping smoking is the most important thing a person can do to improve their health. Visit www.quit.ie.
Breathe easy: Do breathing exercises and chest clearance techniques. It will also help you to relax more. Pursed lip breathing, or leaning forward, whether sitting or standing, and lying on your side, will also help you to control your breathing.
Get active: You may feel that exercise will make you even more breathless, however, the less exercise you do, the less you are able to do. Exercise, done in a safe and controlled way, is one of the best things that you can do to improve your breathlessness, overall fitness and quality of life. You can also join a pulmonary rehabilitation programme under the guidance of health professionals at your nearest hospital.
Eat well: Try to have a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight. Eat little and often rather than having big meals. Drink plenty of fluids, especially if you are having a flare-up.
Know your medications: Talk with your health professional about your medications and how they work. Make sure that you are using the correct inhaler technique. Make sure that you have enough of your medications and that you don’t run out. Have any medical equipment serviced regularly.
Avoid flare-ups: Keep away from smoky environments, pollutants like dusts, smog or foggy weather, and try to minimise your risk of colds and ’flus including making sure to get the ’flu jab every year. Discuss a COPD self-management plan with your health professional. This will help you to know your symptoms, what is usual for you, and when to start treatment early, alter your medication, or seek help, if you feel worse.
Mind your feelings: Living with a long-term illness is not easy and can give rise to feeling low or anxious. For help on minding your emotional health, visitwww.copd.ie.