Nov. 20, 2006

Dassel woman manages her chronic lung disease

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Pam Arola of Dassel doesn’t look sick on the outside. She still works at her job at American Time & Signal Company in Dassel, and, with planning, she can go wherever she wants.

However, “sick lungs don’t show,” Arola has posted on a memo she treasures, because, “it is so true,” she said.

Arola has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, COPD. Because November is COPD awareness month, Arola wants to tell her story to the Dassel Cokato area so others with COPD will know they are not alone, she said.

COPD is what used to be called emphysema. Chronic bronchitis, asthma, restrictive lung disease, and cystic fibrosis have similar symptoms, and can be treated with similar pulmonary rehabilitation. COPD covers all of these chronic lung conditions.

And yes, COPD is usually caused by smoking. It is a life-threatening condition, and the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

Arola smoked for 24 years. She quit 18 years ago, though, and thought she would be safe from a tobacco related illness. She wasn’t.

The air sacs, blood vessels in her lungs were damaged, and her airways had collapsed, trapping air in the sacs and making it difficult to exhale.

Because Arola had quit smoking while she and her husband, Howard, were still in Iowa, people in Dassel were surprised that she had ever smoked, she said.

The couple moved to Minnesota after the closing of a plant in Fort Dodge that made components for switches, where they were employed. At first they considered living in Chisholm. Her husband went first, so Arola often drove through Dassel on her way to Chisholm to see him.

“I just fell in love with it,” Arola said.

Dassel reminded her of her hometown in Iowa, she said. After living for a year in Hutchinson, the couple moved to Dassel in 1994.

Gradually, Arola began having unpleasant symptoms related to breathing. By 2004, she became out of breath from walking upstairs, tired easily, coughed constantly, had increased mucous and shortness of breath.

“People thought I had a cold all the time,” she said.

In the beginning, Arola attributed her symptoms to being overweight. She assumed if she went to the doctor about her symptoms, the doctor would tell her to lose weight, something she already knew she needed to do, she said.

But Arola realized she was changing her lifestyle to accommodate her symptoms. If she had to climb stairs with a group of other people, for example, she waited until last, because she climbed stairs so slowly.

Arola finally went to the Dassel Medical Clinic, where physician assistants Trish Olson and Mike Long made the initial diagnosis she had COPD, and needed a pulmonary specialist. There is no cure, but COPD sufferers can get disease management.

“It’s important that you can trust the doctor to send you on, if they don’t know what to do for you,” Arola said.

Arola’s first reaction was, “anger at myself for ever smoking in the first place. I was very depressed and beating myself up, blaming myself,” she said.

COPD is so frightening, Arola said, she wanted to crawl into a corner and stay there.

The Rev. Marcus Grindle, pastor at the Church of Christ in Dassel, and her friend, reminded her that she was already forgiven by God, and that Jesus had died once for all sin, she said.

“I can enjoy life – now and for eternity, and better yet – I can share my experiences, so that others that suffer from the diseases can learn . . . there are steps we can take to help ourselves,” Arola said.

Arola had already completed the first two steps, stop smoking and locate a knowledgeable physician. The third step, getting enough oxygen, was next. Not getting enough was hurting her heart, kidneys and other organs. Still, Arola was leery, about getting extra oxygen from a tank.

She was worried about what people would think, she said.

“I didn’t want to be tied down,” Arola added.

However, the Helios Oxygen System was much more convenient than she expected. Arola wears a small liquid oxygen tank around her waist that lasts four hours. It’s as small as a woman’s handbag, and it leaves her arms free.

“I feel so much better with it on,” Arola said, adding that she wishes she had started with oxygen right away instead of being afraid of it.

Arola wears an eight-hour tank on her back in a modified backpack when she goes to work. It also leaves her hands free to fabricate silk-screened signs. Her department is ideal for someone using oxygen, because it is already extremely careful about using flammable liquids, she said.

“They’re very good at work. They’ve gone out of their way to make me feel good about (using oxygen,) she said.

Every two weeks an Allina health care company from Hutchinson brings oxygen for a reservoir she keeps in the porch of her home on Second Street. Arola can refill her oxygen packs herself. Arola also has a more portable reservoir she can take with her, if she needs more than eight hours of oxygen.

The next step is pulmonary rehabilitation. Arola goes to St. Cloud Hospital - Centra Care Health System. She learns how to breathe correctly, especially while exercising.

Arola has difficulty exhaling, so her exercises emphasize exhaling at the time when she expends the most effort. When she is exercising, for example, the time she exhales, for example, is twice as long as the time she inhales, Arola explained.

Not only does exercise strengthen her muscles, it opens up her lungs, she said.

Rehab also teaches Arola how to use inhalers and her special equipment, and how to prevent infections that lead to additional lung damage.

Arola also gets an annual flu shot and pneumonia shot, and she has joined a support group in St. Cloud called Breath Savers.

Her oxygen levels are measured frequently. Currently she is at Level 4, which is more severe than someone at Level 2. People with COPD are all different, though. Some people at Level 2 oxygen are too ill to work. Arola also doesn’t need oxygen when she sleeps, when most people with COPD do.

Arola’s life is not perfect.

“The hardest things I find to do are bending over to pick up items I’ve dropped, tying my shoes, and climbing stairs,” she said.

But Arola is managing her COPD. “Maybe I can help someone else,” she said.

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