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Carroll County Times
Carroll County

November is statewide COPD awareness month, thanks to hospital employee

A respiratory therapist for 30 years, Michele Burton recently expanded her outreach from Carroll County to the rest of the state.

Her main cause is one close to the Carroll Hospital Center employee's heart: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is an umbrella term for a variety of lung diseases, from chronic bronchitis to non-reversible asthma to emphysema. Today marks World COPD Day to recognize a disease that affects up to 24 million Americans, but Burton succeeded in receiving a gubernatorial proclamation to make the whole month of November COPD Awareness Month in Maryland.

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"I've worked with people with COPD," said Burton, who is the hospital's pulmonary rehabilitation program clinical coordinator, "and I just felt like it was my job to get it out there that if people would be diagnosed that there's help for them, that there's support - maybe they wouldn't be so scared. I just felt that it's something I needed to do."

As the state captain for the COPD Foundation, Burton was charged with submitting a proposal to ask Gov. Martin O'Malley for the first Maryland proclamation declaring this November as COPD Awareness Month. This was an attempt to make state residents more cognizant of the disease that, according to the COPD Foundation, affects 5.8 percent of Marylanders and is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S.

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She wrote a letter, submitted it in mid-October and the hospital received the signed gubernatorial proclamation in the mail by the first of the month.

It states the definition of COPD; that 24 million Americans suffer from the disease, about half of whom have not been properly diagnosed; that it's the second-leading cause of disability in the United States; and that it cost the nation $49.9 billion in health-care services and other indirect costs in 2010.

"There is no cure for COPD, but increased awareness, early detection and proper health management can slow the progression of the disease and lead to reduced costs, improved quality of life and self-sufficiency for our residents," the proclamation states.

And that's the point of the gubernatorial proclamation, Burton said: to raise awareness within the community and the state government that COPD is a widespread disease.

"The drive for our hospital, as well as other hospitals, is the people that have this lung disease, we are trying to keep them on top of their disease," Burton said. "We don't want patients to be re-admitted, and we're finding that patients aren't finding out that they have it, aren't properly diagnosed and aren't getting the care that they need."

Because once someone is diagnosed, they're able to manage their disease. COPD isn't a death sentence like some may think, Dr. Murtuza Ahmed, Carroll Hospital Center pulmonologist, said.

"For most of our patients, it's a long-term disease where the symptoms are managed," he said, "and if they do the right thing by quitting smoking, exercising, taking their inhalers, they can actually have a very normal lifestyle."

Smoking is the main risk factor of COPD, and there's no rule of thumb on the length of time someone's been smoking and their likeliness to get the disease. Rather, it's individualized, according to Ahmed.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is essentially when the airways inside the lungs are becoming narrowed and constricted instead of opening up when one breathes, which is the result of inflammation, Ahmed said.

The Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease put out a set of guidelines that helps physicians assess a patient's symptoms and their severity.

An individual should see their primary care physician if plagued with increased breathlessness, frequent coughing, wheezing and tightness in the chest - all of which are symptoms of COPD. They might be referred to a pulmonologist, who will assess risk factors, perform lung function tests and sometimes a CT scan of the chest to help determine if they have the disease, according to Ahmed.

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And if they're diagnosed, there are several ways to manage COPD. There's particular inhalers to help an individual breathe better and prevent flare-ups. There's crafting a smoking cessation plan to quit smoking. And there's physical activity, and pulmonary rehabilitation programs can help with that.

"We want them to be able to live as full a life as possible, being as active as possible," Ahmed said.

But sometimes people don't go to their doctor to get checked out. Instead, they'll modify their behaviors - avoid taking the stairs, walk slower, park closer. But when they're put in a situation that forces them to exert themselves, they'll become very short of breath, Ahmed said.

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Raising awareness can increase diagnoses and help people manager their symptoms in a doctor-prescribed way.

"This is a major, major world and public health problem, even in the United States it's a leading cause of death," Ahmed said. "There's a major push toward raising awareness."

And that's exactly what Burton was hoping to do with the gubernatorial proclamation she wasn't necessarily expecting to receive.

"I keep pinching myself," she said. "This is really fun for me."


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