Donna Lyles, of Thomaston, Conn. (pop. 7,826), was at an engagement party in 2003 for her youngest son when she suddenly felt unable to breathe. “I thought the barbecue smoke had overcome me,” she says. “I thought I had allergies. I was in denial.”
Not long after, Lyles experienced the same symptoms during a family beach vacation, prompting a hasty return home to see her family doctor. “He sent me by ambulance to the emergency room,” recalls Lyles, now 64. “He said, ‘Donna, you’re going to die if you pick up another cigarette.’”
She never did.
Lyles was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its telltale signs are a history of smoking, shortness of breath, fatigue and difficulty exercising.
For Lyles, the diagnosis was the culmination of 32 years of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, 21 years of working in a photo processing lab, and a lifetime of residing in an area with high pollution, says Janet Bowen, Lyles’ respiratory therapist at the Hospital for Special Care, a rehabilitation center in New Britain, Conn. “The damage to the lungs from smoking was so much that they could not function. They lose their elasticity and can’t recoil,” Bowen says.
Although Lyles had never heard of COPD before her illness—and in fact an estimated 50 percent of cases go undiagnosed—she knows now, after two hospital stays and three months in the rehabilitation center, that the damage that smoking and chemical fumes did to her lungs almost killed her.
A team effort
After three weeks in the hospital, Lyles experienced a relapse in 2008, in part because she had grown lax about using her nebulizer, a device that vaporizes liquid breathing medication into a mist.
Unable to breathe on her own, and sick both from COPD and an infection, Lyles spent months at the hospital and then at the rehabilitation center, attached to a ventilator that breathed for her. She couldn’t speak because of a tracheotomy, a surgical opening in her windpipe, where a tube was inserted to help her breathing.
Every day a team of respiratory therapists, nurses, pulmonary doctors, physical and occupational therapists, and a chaplain worked with Lyles, helping her build back her strength. “I would try to walk from one end of the bed to the other,” Lyles says. “I was so depressed. But they were so hopeful and they cared that I got better.”
So did her family. Her two sons, two daughters and grandchildren were at her bedside almost constantly. “Even my dog came,” Lyles says.
Her oldest son, Michael Krayeski, 43, a former soldier and factory worker, decided to attend nursing school because he was so moved by his mother’s illness and seeing the expert hospital care she received.
“I saw my mom healing, and I thought how incredible it was how they brought her back, their technical skill, their professionalism,” says Krayeski, who has two daughters with asthma.
Now, completing his first year in nursing school at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Conn., he hopes to add a pulmonary specialty. The work is tough and he depends on his mom for encouragement. “I’ll call my mother after a test and say, ‘Mom, I think I failed.’ She’ll say, ‘I’ll bet you five bucks you didn’t.’ And then I’ll get an 80 on the exam.”
Although Krayeski hasn’t gotten to pulmonary studies yet, he knows enough to encourage his mom to do her deep breathing exercises. “I try to get her to keep moving around to open her airways. And school has opened my eyes about how certain sitting positions can help expand the lungs. For me, my mom is my living textbook.”
Lyles’ younger son, TJ Lyles, 32, also provided his mom with a goal: She was determined to dance at his wedding last September, although she wasn’t sure how she’d manage carrying the 10-pound oxygen tank she uses around-the-clock. The solution: TJ hung the tank around his neck while the pair danced. “I cried through the whole dance,” Donna says.
Now, three years after her hospital release, Donna is the poster child of can-do. “If you ask her how she is, she always says ‘Peachy keen,’” Bowen says. She works out for an hour three times a week in a Hospital for Special Care pulmonary group, alternating among the treadmill, the elliptical machine and the stationary bike. “I feel great after that,” Donna says. “I have to rest five minutes afterward. Then I’m up and driving home.”