Dying to smoke
The woman in the movie took long draws on her cigarettes and blew thin streams of smoke. Pam wanted to look like her. She wanted to be cool. That’s why Pam started to smoke. She was only 10 years old.
“Cigarettes made me feel sick to my stomach,” she said, “made me cough, made my eyes water, made me dizzy. But I would do anything to have that ‘bad girl’ image.”
By the time Pam was 21 years old, she was having trouble taking groceries up the stairs of her home. “I figured that, you know, I wasn’t a kid anymore,” she said. But she had developed chronic bronchitis, an infection in her lungs. “I had bronchitis four times that year.”
Two years later Pam was diagnosed with chronic asthma. She needed to use an inhaler every four hours to help her breathe. “When I was 24, I had what I thought was a severe asthma attack,” Pam said. “I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with emphysema.”
Nearly two million Americans suffer from emphysema, a chronic lung disease for which there is no cure. Doctors say that most cases of emphysema are the direct result of smoking cigarettes.
Pam’s struggle with the illness would consume her life. She learned to describe it as an expert would. “In our lungs we have little air sacs,” she said. “They take in oxygen, which is released into the blood stream, and, at the same time, release carbon dioxide, which is the used-up air in our lungs.”
In people with emphysema, some of the airs sacs in the lungs are damaged. It becomes difficult for people with emphysema to breathe.
At first Pam couldn’t believe she had the illness. “I’m 23,” she thought, “There’s no way I have emphysema.”
The doctor tested Pam. The test showed that Pam was not at a higher risk for emphysema because of genetics, or a family history. He said she had gotten the disease by smoking cigarettes. The doctor warned Pam: if she didn’t quit, she’d be dead before she was 30.
By then, Pam, realized, her oldest daughter would be 13. “I think that’s about the time kids need their parents the most,” Pam said. “I thought it would be pretty selfish if I didn’t quit smoking. So I made the decision then that I wouldn’t smoke anymore.”
Pam craved cigarettes. But she kept reminding herself that her daughters needed her.
A year later, one of Pam’s lungs stopped working. She had a lung transplant to try to save her life. The medication she had to take after the operation made her face swell, but Pam was still alive. “Everything was going really well for a couple of years,” she said.
Until Pam’s body started to reject to transplanted lung. Her doctors said she wasn’t healthy enough to endure another operation.
Just breathing made her ache. “My back muscles are doing a lot of the pushing of the lungs to make me breath,” she said. “So it’s exhausting and very painful by the end of the day.”
Emphysema affected every part of Pam’s life. She couldn’t clean her home or cook. Her children had to take care of themselves as well as Pam. She couldn’t walk long distances, so they had to push her in a wheel chair.
“This disease has affected everything I do,” Pam said. “Every person in my life has been affected.”
Pam‘s children were angry, confused, and upset. They were angry with tobacco companies and with people who smoke in movies. “They don’t want to be angry at me for being sick,” she said, “but they are angry at me for the way their lives have turned out. They’re just very angry with the whole situation.”
On October 31, 2001 at the age of 31 Pam died from respiratory failure due to advanced emphysema.
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