After Pulmonary Push, She Breathed Anew
by Melinda Tuhus | Mar 4, 2010 1:11 pm
Posted to: Health
Johnnie Mae Jones was what is known in health care lingo as a “non-compliant” patient—she refused to follow the medical orders and recommendations to treat her severe lung condition. She wouldn’t even cut back on the two to three packs of cigarettes she smoked each day, despite having collapsed on the floor of her niece’s apartment, unable to breathe.
Now Jones has done a 180—thanks to a unique New Haven facility specializing in lung ailments.
“I was mean when I came here,” Jones said, sitting in the formal dining room of University Skilled Nursing and Rehab Center one day last week, shortly before her discharge after a four-month stay in the facility on Ella Grasso Boulevard. “I was drinking and smoking. I didn’t care; I thought I was going to die anyway. I would cough all day and all night.”
Teresa Charland, a registered respiratory therapist at University who worked with Jones, agreed. She said each woman swore the other would be the death of her. But gradually Jones came to believe that the staff really cared about her—and that they held the key to her recovery.
University is the only non-hospital New Haven facility with a respiratory therapist on staff and regular consultation with a pulmonologist. Staffers treat patients with the mysterious “COPD,” for which miracle drugs are touted on television ads. It stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and includes diagnoses of asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and any other kind of respiratory illness.
Nancy Slocum, head of marketing, said pulmonary disease is one of the top three diagnoses—along with cardiac and orthopaedic problems—leading to hospital admissions. Pulmonary issues lead the list of reasons for hospital readmission.
“Our goal is to keep people out of the hospital,” Slocum said. So staff teach patients how to manage their illness and to contact their doctor at the first sign of a breathing crisis, rather than wait until it becomes truly life-threatening.
They can also help patients recover a vastly better quality of life. Alice Proctor knows that firsthand. She sat down for an interview with a reporter, seated with Jones and several Genesis staffers, just before checking out of the rehab facility after a six-month stay. She came in with a tracheostomy—a hole in the throat that allows a person with severe lung problems to breathe more easily. She thought she’d have it the rest of her life.
“Alice came to us bedridden; she could not move and could not speak,” said Charland. Pritchard, who’s 70, can walk now, and she was recently decanulated. That means she had her breathing tube removed and the hole in her throat cauterized prior to having it stitched closed.
Asked how that feels, Pritchard smiled and said, “I never thought this day would come.” Though it serves a useful purpose, the tube also damages the muscles of the throat.
“Alice came with paralyzed vocal chords,” said Charland. “We had to build her up little by little.” She’s learning to breathe again the normal way, and was on her way to live with her sister on the city’s east side.
Genesis Health Care took over the facility in September 2008 and introduced its pulmonary care program in May 2009. It has 90 nursing home beds and 30 short-term beds for rehab. One unique characteristic is that the facility has piped-in oxygen in some of the rooms. It has between two and ten pulmonary patients at any time, who stay between two weeks and six months. Dr. Michael Imevbore, a board-certified pulmonologist who sees patients at both Yale New Haven Hospital and the Hospital of St. Raphael, heads the multi-disciplinary team at University rehab. In a brief phone conversation after the visit, he said the facility provides an essential service by educating patients about how to care for themselves when they go back home.
Smoking is the major cause of COPD, which was a problem for Jones. “I was mean when I came here,” she said. “I was angry with everyone. My niece was scared of me because I would black out.” Why? “Because I didn’t want to wear my oxygen [tank]. I would wait ‘til it was too late and I would panic and black out.”
She said when she arrived at University, Charland would tell her, “Breathe, Johnnie Mae, breathe!” She hated that—at first. But gradually, she realized taking that advice was good for her. “I learned to pace myself,to dress, wash and feed myself.”
She has some advice for the nicotine-addicted: “Anybody who smokes cigarettes needs to put them down because they are no good for your lungs.” She did, and she’s about to move into her own place, a public-housing apartment.
“She’ll go home with specialized breathing equipment,” Charland said, including a BiPap—the same kind of breathing mask used by those with sleep apnea.
Jones, who’s 54, spent almost three months in the hospital prior to coming to rehab.
“They shipped us off to University and fixed us back up,” she said. “It’s a blessing.” And she became the star of the Better Breathers Club, which meets monthly at the facility so those with COPD can learn breathing exercise and share their stories. “I’m going to come back and help run the Better Breathers Group,” she said proudly. “I have a chance to give back something.”
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This is simply an amazing story. Thanks for this. I am in a similar boat with my mother who smoked for 40 years. I switched her over to the e cig since she WILL NOT quit. Been working out well so far.