John W. Walsh was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at age 40, yet he was determined not to let it slow him down. In 2004, he established the COPD Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the everyday lives of people with COPD through research, education and outreach.
“COPD is mostly preventable, it’s almost always treatable and someday curable,” says Walsh, now 63. “There’s a lot of hope for the future for people with COPD.”
Walsh, of Coconut Grove, Fla., shared his advice with American Profile on living well with the chronic condition.
American Profile: Given your personal experience with the condition, what are some of your best tips for living with COPD?
John Walsh: I think first, take care of yourself. Don’t give up. Make certain that you maintain the regimen of medications that your doctor prescribes. Adherence is so important for someone with COPD to reduce the symptoms, which ultimately helps to reduce the exacerbations, the lung infections, and the lung flare-ups that we get. During flu season, you also want to avoid people who are sick. Everybody wants to avoid somebody sneezing in their face or germs being passed on. But if you have COPD, you definitely want to avoid those exposures. If something makes you cough, you definitely don’t want to be exposed to it.
AP: Why is it so important to avoid infection and generally manage the condition?
JW: One of the big challenges we have is that, if somebody stopped smoking 10 years ago, they automatically think they aren’t going to develop COPD, and that’s not the case. It’s like starting a fire, and once you start that cooking process, you’ve got damaged tissue and you become more susceptible to more damaged tissue. So it’s really important to control the inflammation, which can be done with the therapies that are already available. And it’s very important to aggressively treat any infection or exacerbation or lung flare-up that you might have.
If you can teach somebody with COPD to identify an infection coming on early, where they can feel the additional increased difficulty breathing, they can feel the nasal cold actually go into their lungs, and immediately address that, whether it’s with an antibiotic or another medication that a doctor might prescribe. That will decrease the length of exacerbations, the number of exacerbations and hospitalizations. But most importantly it improves quality of life, and that’s simply by educating an individual with COPD on how to identify the fact that they’re getting sick.
AP: What role should exercise play in living with COPD?
JW: Exercise is one of the most obvious things you can do, and it doesn’t have to be vigorous. I walk 5 miles before I get to the office in the morning, and when I’m on the road, I’m on the treadmill in the morning. It’s really critical to keep active. With COPD, when you’re sick and not able to keep active, then you become less active. And that’s just kind of a roller coaster that you end up on. A lot of people end up putting some weight on and then they do less because they don’t feel good.
AP: Do you find that people are afraid to exercise when they have this condition?
JW: Yes, when my twin brother and I were originally diagnosed, that’s one of the top questions we had. And back then, in 1989, they said you really have to be careful and not exercise too much because you’ll enlarge the right side of your heart. But that’s for people that are really progressed. Now, if you get into a pulmonary rehabilitation program, you learn your level of exercise tolerances and how intense you can be in your exercise regimen. But simple things like walking and just moving your arms—basic exercise—can really improve somebody’s quality of life.
AP: What are the advantages to diagnosing COPD as early as possible?
JW: You can get on medications to treat the symptoms that will essentially slow progression and allow you to live a normal life. A lot of people get the diagnosis of COPD and think, “There’s nothing I can do about it.” Well, there is something you can do about it. You can reduce the symptoms through medications that are currently available, based on your doctor’s prescription, and you can stay active.