A Positive Approach to COPD Diagnosis

Featured Article, Health, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on May 2, 2012

Not long after being diagnosed with emphysema, one of a group of diseases collectively known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Bill Mayhall, of Albuquerque, N.M., was sitting in a pulmonologist’s waiting room and didn’t like what he saw:  pale, frail and somber-looking patients.

Mayhall later asked his doctor if that’s what he could expect as his condition worsened. He knew that COPD has no cure; it typically is managed with medication, supplemental oxygen and healthful lifestyle changes.

“I will always remember what the doctor said in response,” he says. “‘Keep exercising, to the maximum of your ability and using your oxygen, of course. This will keep you going for many years, and keep you from looking and feeling the way you described the other patients.’”

Seventeen years later, Mayhall still takes that advice to heart. Fortunately, activity always has been a priority in his life. From an early age, he struggled with asthma, but the condition didn’t keep him from playing high school football, earning a black belt in judo, competing as a bodybuilder and running
for 20 years.

“I discovered, unfortunately, that all that running did not offset the effects of smoking,” the former smoker says. “We can lie beautifully to ourselves, with regard to our bad habits!”

Now 79, Mayhall devotes 15 to 20 minutes a day exercising on his stationary bike or treadmill. “I use a fairly slow pace, but use what I call ‘forced breathing.’ With each breath, take a breath inward, followed by three quick puffs outward,” he says. “This forces the mucus out of my lungs. Very effective! And the rhythmic breathing pattern it creates doesn’t tire you.”

After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Mayhall earned a doctorate in counseling and education psychology and became a psychologist. Now retired, he continues to draw on his understanding of the human mind to cope with his illness.

“In any situation, the only variable we can usually control is our attitude about the situation, but this factor is very powerful,” he says. “I have several short messages I repeat to myself when I am hurting, e.g., ‘This too shall pass,’ or ‘Nothing is forever!’” He also meditates for at least an hour a day, and finds comfort in prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

The pulmonologist who initially treated Mayhall was crucial to his attitude shift about his illness, helping him frame his condition as something he could live with for years. “He told me, in effect, to get out there and live my life. I loved his approach—it’s given me many more years of active living!” he says. These days, his current doctor and his wife, Trudy, both mirror that positive attitude, and offer encouragement.

Mayhall enjoys communicating with other COPD patients, and is eager to share what he’s learned with anyone struggling with their diagnosis. “Hang in there! It’s an exciting adventure—if you look at it that way—in finding new things that help,” he says. “I do not see myself as a ‘sick person’ but rather a person with some conditions that I must deal with daily in order to enjoy life to the fullest.”