Darcy Ellefson, a Sanford Health registered respiratory therapist understands first-hand the importance of pulmonary rehab. She grew up watching her uncle and dad struggle with breathing issues. Both of them had limited resources available for treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
They were an inspiration to her. Though the disease does not have a cure, people can do things to slow down the damage being done.
Now Ellefson deals daily with people’s lungs and their breathing troubles in her pulmonary rehab role in patient care at the Sanford Wellness Center.
“What motivates me is the patients I take care of. I see a lot of senior citizens that struggle with respiratory issues every day and they make it through each day with a smile,” she said. “The pulmonary rehab is a program where we educate people with COPD. We educate them how to breathe and how to prevent further damage as well as starting them on an exercise program.”
Ellefson said the wellness center is a very warm and welcoming place where everyone really cares for one another. The program lasts four weeks and involves patients exercising three times a week for about two hours.
Related: COPD podcast
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, but we often overlook it.
COPD usually develops in people over the age of 40 and is thought of as a smokers’ disease. Ninety percent of people who develop COPD do so because of smoking, whether it’s from smoking directly or secondhand smoke.
Early diagnosis of COPD is critical, Ellefson said. It is important for people, especially smokers, to be aware if they are coughing, wheezing, have shortness of breath or a tightness in their chest, as these are all symptoms of COPD.
COPD also may affect blood oxygen levels in some and this will put a burden on the heart. The lungs and heart are so closely connected and this means that with COPD comes an increases risk of heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure and more. This is another reason that it’s important to see your doctor if you start experiencing COPD symptoms.
COPD is an umbrella term for a variety of different diseases: chronic bronchitis, chronic asthma and emphysema.
COPD is diagnosed by results from a breathing test called spirometry. A spirometry test measures how much and how fast a person can exhale air from the lungs. If the results are below a certain percentage, the results verify the diagnosis of COPD.
Spirometry can determine if someone has COPD before significant symptoms show up. Often, a person is very sick by the time they get a diagnosis. This is why early recognition is crucial.
Causes of COPD
Nine out of 10 times the cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. Very rarely is COPD a genetic cause. It is more important for those who develop COPD from genetic factors to get a diagnosis. That’s because enzyme replacement therapy is available and providers could notify family members to get genetic testing as well.
When you have COPD, your lungs hold onto extra air, making it difficult to breathe. Your lungs work like a balloon: You blow it up and air fills it. Then you let it out and the air goes out very quickly. In a person with COPD, air tubes may be blocked from getting air out of the lungs.
Another reason their lungs are not working properly is because lung tissue may have also been lost, which results in COPD. If lung tissue is lost, it isn’t as elastic as it was before, so air wants to come in but it does not want to come back out.
In a healthy person, when you work harder, you should breath more. In a person with COPD, air gets stuck inside the lungs because they are basically breathing when their lungs are already full of air. They cannot get any air in because they didn’t allow enough time for old air to come out.
This often makes people with COPD want to avoid moving because when they do, they become short of breath. Being immobile is the worst thing they could do.
If someone is having shortness of breath and they cannot do as much, it is very important that they mention this to their doctor so that they can get the proper help. By notifying a doctor, the doctor can slow down the progression of the disease.
A personal experience with pulmonary rehab
“I try not to let COPD affect my everyday life, but of course it does,” said Yvonne Moss, a Sanford Health patient. She went through the Sanford pulmonary rehab program.
Since having COPD, she has not been able to go out and do as much as she used to. Moss said hiking and fishing, two of her hobbies, have become increasingly more difficult.
She said Sanford Health’s rehab program taught her a lot. “It taught me how to live better, it was really worth it, and I’m grateful for the program.”
Moss shared one experience about walking up to the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls and struggling to breath. “It was scary.” The rehab program taught her how to breathe better and avoid such stress.
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