By Denise Williams, News & Views staff
Heart transplant and lung cancer survivor Brian H. says his biggest regret with cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation is that he didn’t recognize just how important it was at the actual times when he was enrolled in it. He sees the value now; and in hindsight, he would encourage patients like himself to embrace rehab and stay active. “You’ve got to use the equipment you’ve got left,” the Air Force veteran explains, “otherwise, it’ll dwindle away. Without keeping up with it, you end up like me—which isn’t a very good spot right now.”
Today, his activity is limited to swimming, the most gentle and forgiving type of exercise his body will tolerate. An outdoor pool graces his Texas home, built for that express purpose. There in the water, he can draw on lessons from cardiac and pulmonary rehab that stuck with him over the years. “I learned how to keep my pulse between 140 and 160 and keep it there for 30 minutes solid,” he remembers. Rehab, he notes, is instrumental for learning how “to do the right kind of exercise to get your heartbeat up but not to over-stress yourself.”
To survive congestive heart failure, COPD, and other kinds of health challenges he has faced, Brian advises, it is critical to keep moving—but also not to neglect the mental barriers that must be overcome. If you smoke, like he used to, then he has another critical piece of advice: stop.
It’s not an easy ask, he knows. Brian took his first puff as a mere child and was 55 before he quit smoking for good. By then, a lifetime of smoking had become a lifetime of complications, which nearly took his life on numerous occasions—starting with a heart attack at age 35. Brian tried nicotine patches and other cessation aids over the years, but never stopped smoking for long. Meanwhile, the bad news just kept coming, one diagnosis after another. These crises were no deterrent, though—not when the nicotine that showed up in his labwork disqualified him for a heart transplant, and not even when he entered at-home hospice care. “At that point, I thought, ‘What’s the difference? I’m going to die anyway?’” he admits, his fatalist mentality lending him the excuse he needed.
New Lease on Life
Call it luck, attribute it to divine intervention … but Brian didn’t die—instead, he came out of hospice. It was about a year after that, in 2009, when he received the epiphany he didn’t know he was waiting for. “I realized, ‘Hey, I’m not dying yet!’ If I’m not going to die, then I better give myself a chance to live!” he recalls. “And I made that decision in my head that I was ready to quit, and then I did.” Brian was empowered to approach his doctor about trying again for a new heart; and, this time, with no nicotine detected in his labwork, the mission was accomplished. And, according to Brian, the 2012 operation came “just in the nick of time.”
Brian’s health outlook didn’t improve immediately, however. A series of medical setbacks, including pneumonia, followed the transplant. By 2014, though, he was feeling the best he had in decades—although, unfortunately, the feeling wouldn’t last long. The next year, Brian was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent surgery in 2016 to remove part of that organ. More health scares ensued: a couple of small strokes over the next year or two. “Apparently I had a little bit of vascular dementia because all those years of smoking had affected the blood vessels in my brain,” Brian reports. “I have some issues with that and mild cognitive impairment; and now they’re saying I have mild to moderate Alzheimer’s as well. So it’s been ‘fun,’ but I’m still here!”
He’s joking, of course, about the so-called fun but couldn’t be more sincere in his gratitude for the extension on life he’s been afforded. “I have nine years or so beyond the point where I ought to be alive,” Brian says solemnly. Still, he acknowledges the present situation is a “bumpy road,” with his progress now moving in reverse. New and old complications limit his mobility, but they haven’t eroded his resolve.
Role Model for the Cause
Brian continues to do what he can to help himself, as well as what he can to help others. That includes stepping in as a self-proclaimed “poster boy” for CDC’s Tips From Former Smokers® campaign. As a veteran, he welcomed the opportunity to serve and give back. His participation in the campaign also opened the doors for involvement in other pursuits, including lobbying for anti-tobacco legislation.
Brian welcomes the day when nicotine is outlawed. He imagines the public’s reaction if fast-food restaurants starting putting the addictive drug in food to compel customers to return. “People would be outraged,” Brian predicts. “This is the same thing. I would suggest taking nicotine out of the world and letting people smoke if they want. But I can pretty much guarantee that, without the nicotine, they’re not going to want to.”
For those already addicted to tobacco, meanwhile, Brian empathizes—but he also urges them to think about their future, or lack of one. “Science tells us that you’re going to have problems; you probably already have them cooking in the background … you’re going to have to pay the bill at some point,” he says. At the same time, he wants people who smoke to understand that they’re not only hurting themselves but the people who love them. Still, he recognizes that “you can’t change everybody’s mind. All you can do is tell them facts, share some stories, and hope they can come to the right conclusions on their own.”
He continues to do just that, speaking with regret about the time he has lost through his smoking-related health ordeals and with joy about how quitting smoking has allowed him to celebrate nearly 50 years of matrimony and watch his grandchildren grow up.
Learn more about Brian H. and see his Tips® ads here. And visit the Tips® web page with free resources for health care providers like you here.