Until three years ago, Gail was exceptionally active, pouring enormous time and energy into her job every day. However, this routine began to feel increasingly difficult.
“I was exceptionally tired, and I just coughed… and coughed and coughed and coughed. I felt my voice was getting deeper. I was feeling very ill.”
Gail, then in her late 60s, had never once landed in hospital, so the idea of seeing a doctor didn’t come naturally. “Like everybody, I thought ‘it never happens to you’, so I didn’t really believe that I was as sick as I was. But reality hit after a little while.”
When she finally got her diagnosis, Gail learned she had been living with severe Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for at least three years.
COPD is an umbrella term for lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma, which cause airflow limitation that is not fully reversible. COPD affects 14%, or one in seven Australians aged 40 or over.1 This figure increases to 29% in Australians aged 75 or over. 1 After heart disease, stroke and cancer, it’s Australia’s biggest cause of death and disease burden.
COPD is typically associated with shortness of breath and a repetitive cough. People who unknowingly have COPD may mistake these symptoms as signs of ageing, lack of fitness or asthma – a simple spirometry test organised through a doctor can diagnose COPD.
While COPD currently has no cure, there are things that people can do to be more active, breathe more easily, keep out of hospital and improve their quality of life.2
To those experiencing the early symptoms of COPD, Gail has a powerful message: don’t ignore it.
“I would be devastated if I couldn’t go into the garden at least for an hour a couple of times a week. But if you ignore this and think ‘this is going to be all right’, you won’t be able to.’
“You have to help yourself. You really have to give your body a chance to be able to do the things that you want to do.”
Now 71, Gail is adjusting to a new, very different life with COPD.
“It’s very, very debilitating day-by-day,” she says. “If you’re struggling for breath, it’s really hard, and what you have to do is keep going.”
“I did a pulmonary rehabilitation course for three months, which I think saved my life, because after I finished that I realised that my new life was going to start from there.”
This “new life” revolves around a single, all-important goal: staying out of hospital. This means looking after her lungs each and every day with activities that can help keep the worst at bay: daily breathing exercises, tai chi, walking the dog and gardening.
“I don’t go one day without doing something to help my lungs… I never miss. I know that to keep myself out of hospital, I have to do the exercise.”
Gail’s illness has only led to one hospital stay; an experience she is very eager not to repeat.
“I’m exceptionally careful. Because when you’re in hospital with pneumonia, you’re very, very sick. And hopefully if I can be as careful as I am, it won’t happen again.”
COPD is the second leading cause of preventable hospitalisations in Australia. Hospitalisations can be avoided if COPD patients receive the right care and treatment. So the best thing to do is speak to your GP about how you can stay well and out of hospital.