February 19, 2013

Rehab helps improve breathing for pulmonary patients


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Sandra Baker’s breathing problems had become debilitating.

Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema and asthma, the Plattsburgh woman had gotten to the point where anxiety over the fear of not being able to breathe controlled her life.

“It affects you and your ability to breathe,” Baker said of her medical conditions following a battle with lung cancer in 2000 that resulted in a partial loss of her lungs.


She defeated the cancer and has been in remission ever since, but it has only been recently that she has taken a more aggressive approach toward her breathing issues by signing up for the CVPH Medical Center’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program.

“This program is wonderful,” she said of the eight-week exercise and educational service, which concentrates on learning about pulmonary disease and on combating the effects the disease has on a person’s ability to breathe easily.

“It’s designed to help improve your respiratory system,” Baker said, emphasizing her new-found understanding of the way she can help control the impact of COPD and other breathing issues. “The exercises are designed to help keep you going.”


COPD is a lung disease that is typically caused by damage to the lungs over a long period of time, often as a result of smoking. Tobacco smoke and other irritants damage and destroy fibers that carry air to the lungs.

Baker had smoked for 35 years before her bout with lung cancer, but her colleague in the rehabilitation program, Jane Irwin, was not a smoker and believes her problems with COPD are connected more to her career in beauty shops at a time when chemicals were not as controlled as they are today.

“I would get to a point where I just couldn’t breathe,” said Irwin, a Peru native, of her growing respiratory problems. “It was an awful feeling, not knowing if you were going to be able to catch your breath.

“Coming here (to the bi-weekly rehab sessions) has helped me do exercises that help open my airways,” she added. “They teach you how to breathe, how to exercise your lungs.”


Breathing exercises, called “purse-lip breathing,” help the participants focus on how to breathe properly, inhaling oxygen through the nose and then exhaling through the mouth.

“When you get over-anxious (from not being able to catch your breath), that’s when you panic,” Baker said. “Learning to breathe properly gives you a lot of confidence.”

“You have your good days and your bad days,” Irwin added. “But now I’m not afraid to do things like go shopping.”


Victims of COPD will often revert to inactivity when suffering through difficult breathing periods. The rehab program emphasizes regular activity, including upper-body strengthening, to combat those times and improve overall respiratory function.

“It’s an evidence-based program that has shown that regular activities for people with lung disease improves their daily lives,” said Beth Ashworth, a senior respiratory therapist and COPD educator for the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program.

“Regular exercise helps relieve those feelings of breathlessness and improves endurance,” she added. “A lot of people with shortness of breath are scared to move, but your muscles become de-conditioned with the less you do. It becomes more difficult to breathe with inactivity.”


The course, which is also geared toward people with cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung diseases, runs twice a week for two-hour periods each day.

The opening half-hour focuses on education, including the physiology of the lungs, medications and nutrition. Specialists in pulmonology often visit the classes to offer their support, Ashworth noted.

The rest of the time is spent on exercise programs, including the use of weights and cardiovascular equipment, much of which was purchased with support from the CVPH Foundation.

“We do a lot of upper-body aerobics,” Ashworth said. “When people have shortness of breath, they often will stop using their arms. We want to build up those muscles, aid in the body’s ability to breathe.”

The program also concentrates on balance exercises and cardiovascular exercises.


Both Baker and Irwin are approaching the end of their eight-week sessions but have the confidence to continue working on their own, either at home or in local exercise facilities.

“These people (participating in the program) are living with chronic disease,” Ashworth said. “We want to make the disease live around them instead of letting the disease take over their lives.”

Participants are referred to the program through their primary-care doctors or through pulmonary specialists.

Sessions take place in the hospital’s Cardiac Rehab Center, located at 210 Cornelia St. on the CVPH campus.

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Pulmonary rehabilitation helps to:

▶ Improve the strength of the muscles used for breathing.

▶ Manage shortness of breath.

▶ Improve upper-body strength.

▶ Improve ability to do daily activities.

▶ Improve quality of life.