Hospital program breathes new life into patients |

Hospital program breathes new life into patients

Joe DeSimone worked in a Los Angeles steel mill for years, inhaling sulfur and smoke from the burning metals.

“And then I smoked cigarettes on top of it,” DeSimone said.

He now realizes that that is why he got chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a malady that traps air in the lungs and makes normal breathing difficult. It came on slowly and got to a point where DeSimone, 69, could not get his groceries from the car to the house without running out of breath.

“Working around the house, I could only go 15 minutes before I needed a rest,” said the retiree from Penn Valley. Realizing the severity of his condition, DeSimone got a referral to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation program.

After two years in the program, “I can go outside and work all day, and I lost weight, about 20 pounds,” DeSimone said. “I feel better over all.”

Weight maintenance is just one way program coordinator Connie Johnson gets people with lung disease to literally breathe easier.

“You don’t want folks to be too thin because then you have no energy to draw from,” said the pulmonary care practitioner. “You don’t want them to be overweight because the abdominal content pushes against the lungs and then they don’t have the right amount of room to function.”

Breathing techniques are also taught. DeSimone has learned pursed-lip breathing that forces him to exhale out of his mouth so that he can take a deep breath through the nose. The technique improves exercise ability because it creates less shortness of breath.

Johnson’s initial class meets for two hours, twice a week, for four weeks. The patients get one hour of classroom instruction and one hour of exercise on treadmills, weight machines and other apparatus to condition the muscles needed for breathing.

In the classroom, Johnson brings in a dietitian to talk about the need to select the right foods for breathing well. For instance, a person with a high carbon dioxide level can make the situation worse by eating too many carbohydrates.

A pharmacist talks to the patients about their medications and Johnson explains anatomy and physiology to them “so they have an understanding of why they can’t breathe well.”

Patients are taught to relax by visualization “to get them away from the panicky cycle of not being able to breathe,” Johnson said.

After the class, patients can join the ongoing program that DeSimone attends and also be in the Better Breathers Club, a support group and social outlet.

Johnson said the program is not a panacea because damage from lung disease is not reversible. But exercises, nutrition and breathing techniques can make life better for the patients.

“Our goal is to empower them by teaching them and getting them more fit,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty much the cheerleader.”

Patients need a doctor’s referral or can call Johnson to get into the program. They have to have a study that shows diminished lung volume and either have to be in a smoking cessation program or not smoking at all.

“We have a lot of fun in class; any concern they have, we try to discuss and share,” Johnson said.

There is also a free, two-hour class put on every quarter in the evening, so that those who work can get ingrained to the program. Spouses are encouraged to attend any of the classes with patients “because it’s a family process,” Johnson said

How to get pulmonary


Call Connie Johnson, the respiratory care practitioner for Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, at 274-6084. She will explain what you need to do to get into the program.

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