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They Grow Accustomed to Their Pace, Just Breathing In and Breathing Out

July 03, 1986|GERALD FARIS

So what's the big deal?

A bunch of grown-ups walking to the end of a small parking lot, turning around, and then walking back?

Why the smiles? Why the eyes glued to wristwatches?

Why the oxygen tanks trailing behind a few of them?

That's a clue.

Walking, the simplest thing in the world for most people, can be a tough challenge for those who sometimes find themselves struggling for their next breath. People with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory diseases. There are more than 30 million of them in the United States.

People like Charlie Gibney of Hawthorne, a retired liquor salesman who used to stay home because of emphysema--"It was from smoking"--and have his neighbors or his son do his errands. "I had a fear of not being able to catch my breath," said Gibney, who walks a mile and a half a day.

He was out walking on the parking lot in the sunshine, along with a lot of other folks attending last week's fifth annual Respiratory Rally at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance--a demonstration that people with pulmonary diseases don't have to be sedentary shut-ins once they have learned how to breathe properly and pace themselves to avoid the shortness of breath that can lead to panic.

Rose Ashford of Palos Verdes Estates was there, too. She had lung surgery because of cancer, suffers from emphysema and requires oxygen most of the time. But she walks half an hour a day.

"I'm not a defeatist," Ashford said, adding that when it's hard for her to breathe she still panics, sometimes. "I have to push myself. If I say I can't, I can't."

Registered nurse Mary Burns, who is supervisor of pulmonary rehabilitation at Little Company of Mary, calls respiratory illnesses "closet diseases," explaining, "People stay home. They don't know there is help."

But the 100 or so people who attended the rally have thrown their closet doors open. Former patients in hospital rehabilitation programs, they got to exchange tips on how to cope with the problems they share, enjoy lunch and entertainment and stretch their legs with moderate exercise.

Their hospital stays behind them, the people continue to meet regularly in support groups--they're called clubs--with names like the Windpipers and PEP (that stands for Pulmonary Education Program) Pioneers.

And the people who came to the rally were not only from PEP at Little Company of Mary, but from Saint John's Hospital in Santa Monica, UCLA Medical Center in Westwood--they're the Windpipers--Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood and Loma Linda University Medical Center in San Bernardino County.

The day's highlight was the walk around the parking lot, called a pace race because people estimated how long it would take them to walk the course without shortness of breath and then tried to meet that time. Usually, they didn't give themselves enough credit.

Ashford, for example, thought it would take her more than a minute and 20 seconds. But she did it in 31 seconds. "I couldn't believe I walked that fast," she said.

Helen Merit of Lomita, on the other hand, almost called her time. She predicted 22 1/2 seconds and came in just under it. "I guessed," said Merit, who has asthma. "I'm a fast walker."

Getting around the course looked like a strain for Herman Gray, who wore a jaunty cap and pulled his portable oxygen cart behind him. But after he made it in 35 seconds, he said, "I felt exhilarated. I hyped myself up for it. I used to be a track man." Gray, who lives in Manhattan Beach, said he was diagnosed two years ago as having asbestosis as the result of World War II Navy service. "They thought I'd be dead by now, but I'm not," he said, adding that he can do very little and living with his disease isn't easy: "Sometimes I feel mean and frustrated and take it out on my wife. I get mad because I was an active man all my life."

He said a good day, like this one, helps him.

People commonly take 20 to 30 years to develop respiratory diseases, "mostly through a lifetime of smoking," nurse Burns said. The road back includes teaching them the physiology and techniques of breathing and how to control panic when they suddenly are unable to breathe. They also learn to do what they fear the most--exercise.

"Some can only walk for one minute," said Burns, explaining that the goal of her hospital program is to have people walking 45 minutes a day after 5 1/2 weeks. "There is so much that can be done to let people know they can enjoy life again," she said.

After hospital programs, ongoing support through the clubs--which combine education, socializing and exercise--is vital to keep people motivated. "People get discouraged, but they support and take care of each other," she said.

One thing PEP Pioneers--called the "peppy people"--does is to have group walks once a week at the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance. They also recently completed a "Walk to New York"--not literally, but by compiling monthly group mileage for 18 months until there was enough to cross the continent and return.

The group received a letter from New York Mayor Ed Koch and a proclamation from Katy Geissert, mayor of Torrance.

There are some physicians who say people with respiratory diseases should avoid exercise because it can cause shortness of breath. But in a talk at the rally, Dr. John Elliott Hodgkin, respiratory care director at St. Helena Hospital in Northern California, said regular exercise is beneficial if pretesting is done to determine a safe level. The alternative, he said, is being a "respiratory cripple."

Georgine Love of Hollywood, who belongs to the Better Breathers Club at Saint John's, wouldn't quarrel with that. With her asthma receding, she said, she exercises at two health clubs and is thinking about going into body building.

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