The official blog of the Lung Institute.
The first time my grandmother visited Versailles, she was in her early 20s. It was only seven years after World War II had ended and it was still fresh in everyone’s mind, the days of Pan Am, when Coca Cola came in glass bottles and cigarettes were cool. My grandmother had just graduated from the University of Michigan, landed her first job with KLM, and had the world by its tail.
Now she’s back at Versailles, 50 years later, with my mom and me on either side, three generations on the trip of a lifetime. Only now, grandma is in a wheelchair strapped to an oxygen tank that the three of us lug around the cobblestoned European streets. We had traveled by sea on the Queen Mary II from New York City to Northern France, and before the trip my grandma had grandeur visions of walking around the ship to stay in shape. Little did we know, just walking to dinner wasn’t possible without grandma stopping to take a break to catch her breath. “I want you to look at me,” she’d said to me on one break. “Look at what smoking did to me. This is why you should never – ever – smoke.” Another unsolicited life lesson that I gracefully took in, nodding & smiling. Finally grandma admitted that she would need to use a wheelchair to get around on the trip.
The Reality of COPD
We traveled throughout Europe for two weeks, me pushing the wheelchair and oxygen tank around, making frequent stops for chocolate cake, espresso and boutique shopping. By the end of the trip, my arms are buff, back is aching and palms are blistered from pushing the wheelchair around. We fly home rather than taking the ship back, and on the flight our ability to adapt to grandma’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) ends. The lack of oxygen in the plane causes grandma to pass out during the flight home. Luckily, we’re able to revive her with oxygen, but not without a huge scare. Mom and I white knuckled our armrests for the remainder of the flight – we thought we’d lost her.
Grandma grew up in an upper middle class lifestyle that allowed her to travel like many other Americans couldn’t. She had a great, fulfilled life. But COPD doesn’t discriminate.
The following summer I received a call that my grandmother had passed away. She had dramatically stopped breathing in the middle of the night and they were unable to keep her breathing on her own at the hospital. When I received the call, I felt numb and unsure of what to think, and then a wave of thankfulness washed over me. I’m so thankful that mom, grandma and I got to take that trip to Europe together to allow grandma to reminisce on what it had been like when she was young and wasn’t strapped to an oxygen tank – when life was easier before COPD.
COPD and Quality of Life
If there had been some way to improve her quality of life, even for a little while, she would have been the first one in line. I would encourage anyone living with someone who has COPD to be patient and supportive, and if that person finds any way to improve their quality of life so that they can simply walk to the mailbox without having to take a break or hauling along an oxygen tank, then support them, and let them participate untethered and free in life’s little moments.
Today we send our thoughts to all of the mothers with COPD, and give thanks to the caregivers. Happy Mother’s Day.