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Patient Stories

One Breath at a Time
By The Healthy Life 2011 Fall

A year ago, Gretchen Benkert never thought she’d be walking distances or traveling internationally because her asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) made breathing and everyday tasks difficult. Both lung diseases severely limited her lung capacity and caused labored breathing from seemingly easy activities. Simple things like doing errands around town and even doing a load of laundry were drawn out and made difficult because of her compromised lungs.

For 15 years, Benkert saw her pulmonologist, Dr. Christopher Fanta, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In October of 2010, things began to change for Benkert. She was having debilitating symptoms every day, while also trying to wean herself towards lower levels of Prednisone, an anti-inflammatory drug that has side effects and also may leave patients more susceptible to infections. After hearing her concerns Dr. Fanta suggested the Pulmonary Rehabilitation program at NSMC Union Hospital as an alternative to build up her endurance and improve her lung function.. Heeding her doctor’s advice, she enrolled in the 36-session program.

The NSMC Pulmonary Rehabilitation program is designed to help patients with lung diseases – such as COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis and cystic fibrosis – reduce their shortness of breath and improve the quality of their lives. The program includes education, medically-supervised exercise and additional support services such as relaxation skills and a smoking cessation program.

On her first day in the program, Benkert could only ride a recumbent bike before she started having trouble with shallow breathing. Over the next 35 sessions she steadily built up her physical conditioning and lung capacity, and lost 80 pounds in the process. Proving just how far she’s progressed, in March 2011, she took on a previously unattainable journey--travelling to London alone. She was initially very hesitant because weeks before she couldn’t complete her laundry, never mind traverse a foreign city. But, the staff at the Pulmonary Rehab program encouraged her to go and with the help of her motorized scooter she successfully toured the city and fulfilled a dream to travel. Basking in her accomplishment and improved health, Benkert has continued to take care of her pulmonary disease by taking part in the pulmonary maintenance program at NSMC Union Hospital and plans to use the gym at the NSMC Wellness and Integrative Medicine Center in Salem to preserve all the progress she made in Pulmonary Rehab.

Benkert is quick to offer encouragement to other patients with pulmonary disease contemplating joining the Pulmonary Rehabilitation program. “Try to put aside worries and other experiences and go in with an open mind. Give yourself a chance, it’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s a wonderful program, and the staff is extremely supportive,” she says. “It’s all at your own pace, so you can do what works for you. I felt so safe and encouraged by the staff and I couldn’t have progressed this far without their support.” Today, she finds herself walking more, using her scooter only for long distance and running errands, and is able to keep up with household chores with more ease. She’s even taken up swimming lessons.