Helping Al breathe when it's not a piece of cake

Al and Ellie Lauckner have been married for 60 years. They are both enjoying retirement, still traveling annually to Florida in the winter and South Carolina in the fall. You’d never know from looking at Al that he’s been living with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) for the last 12 years.

“I manage my COPD well. I take all my medications and go to my doctor every six months,” said Al. He was diagnosed with COPD after visiting his primary care physician for a normal appointment. After discussing Al’s breathing issues, he was referred to pulmonologist Michel Samaha, MD. Dr. Samaha confirmed Al’s COPD diagnosis and began a course of treatments that included inhalers, nebulizers, and a sleep mask at night to treat Al’s sleep apnea.

“I’ve seen a vast improvement in my quality of life since seeing Dr. Samaha,” said Al. “It’s hard when you can’t breathe. And I could tell it was impacting my wife as well. Now I’m in control and feel great.”

Al credits Ellie with giving him the motivation to talk to his doctor about his breathing issues. Not all patients do talk to their doctors about COPD, and not all patients know what to look for. “It’s estimated 12 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, and an additional 12 million have it but don’t know it,” said Respiratory Navigator Elizabeth Hurley. “It’s important for patients to know what COPD is, and know the signs and symptoms. COPD is progressive. It can’t be cured, but there are steps we can take to slow the progression. Our biggest goal is to keep patients where they are and not let the COPD worsen.”

That’s why Hurley and her colleagues are fanning out in the community to educate physicians on identifying possible COPD patients. Most COPD patients are over the age of 45 with a history of smoking. But not all patients are former smokers. Exposure to chemicals and dust, even untreated asthma can lead to COPD. “We need the community to understand this disease,” said Hurley. “We want to get people diagnosed and get their COPD under control. The sooner we know a patient has COPD, the sooner we can intervene and begin treatment.”

Once a person is diagnosed with COPD they are put on medication, possibly referred to pulmonary rehab, and often encouraged to attend a support group. Al and Ellie both attend the Better Breathers Club at Bayhealth Milford Memorial. Ellie provides moral support for Al. “The biggest benefit for me, as a support person, is listening to other people,” she said. “I’m able to hear about how they cope with some of the problems associated with COPD. I get a lot of insights and tips from others.” Ellie concluded, “I just want to learn as much as I can so I can be there for my husband and help him live the healthiest life he can.”

“The Better Breathers Club has taught me how to breathe properly,” said Al. “The best advice I’ve ever gotten is to breathe in like you’re smelling roses; breathe out like you’re blowing out your birthday candles. Overall, it’s incredibly helpful. And it’s good to hear from other people. Our journeys are different but we can all connect. I’m 88 years old and living a good life. I want to stay as active as I can for as long as I can.”