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Games Spotlight Healthy Lungs

Pulmonary rehab patients say program saved their lives

Without the pulmonary rehabilitation program at Inova Fairfax Hospital Kathleen Feeney would be dead.

After finding out that she needed a lung transplant for cystic fibrosis, Feeney had to wait three years and four months before receiving the transplant. The rehabilitation program allowed her to keep breathing the entire time.

“Everyone will tell you the same thing, [the program] saved their lives,” said Heather Cronin.

Cronin, 33, started noticing breathing difficulties in May 2005. She said poor circulation made her pale and cold. Cronin was suffering from a type of pulmonary fibrosis that also led to weight loss. The disease also can make a lung transplant the only option in three to seven years.

Three weeks into the rehabilitation program at Inova Fairfax, Cronin gained 10 pounds and her skin color and circulation improved, she said.

When one first is diagnosed with a major lung disorder, “one feels all alone,” Cronin said, who must breath pure oxygen all of the time through thin transparent plastic tubes called cannula. These tubes are connected to a wheeled oxygen tank that is usually on the floor next to her.

The rehabilitation program provides a support group of other people in a similar situation, Cronin said.

ON FRIDAY, April 28, Inova Fairfax conducted a “Lung Games” for its patients with serious lung disorders. Patients competed in aerobic activities like walking and working out on a NuStep machine that simultaneously exercises legs and arms.

The patients whose performance most closely matched their predictions were declared winners. This encourages patients to know their limits, said Heather Montilla, chair of the Lung Games and a respiratory therapist at the hospital.

This is the first Lung Games program in Virginia. “Our goal is to have these games throughout Virginia (at other lung rehab programs),” Montilla said.

Inova Fairfax has one of 23 lung rehabilitation programs in Virginia, Montilla said. Staff for it includes a pulmonologist, a nutritionist, a psychologist and several nurses and therapists.

Along with providing guided exercise to patients, the initial 10-week pulmonary rehabilitation program teaches patients how to use exercise machinery and medicines, and provide information about insurance policies for their disease. They also learn how to interpret their own pulmonary function data. Finally, they learn to control the panic that sometimes strikes when they have difficulty breathing.

After passing through this program, patients are encouraged to participate in a maintenance program of exercise at the hospital.

Because of concerns about pollen, cold, heat and air pollution, many patients cannot exercise outdoor, Montilla said. All need oxygen and many need monitoring while exercising. For many this makes the hospital the only option.

Participation in the maintenance program involves going to the hospital two or three times a week. Patients do both weights and aerobic activity, said patient Van Shumway.

Insurance will not cover the maintenance program. The hospital charges patients $40-50 per month for participation.

The hospital provides free oxygen and free parking for the program. In addition, hospital staff monitor the patients doing their exercises.

“Our goal is to make it easy for people to do the right things for themselves,” said Leah Junk, co-chair of the Lung Games and a respiratory therapist.

The program treats patients with emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic bronchitis and other diseases.

Each year about 220 people pass through the initial program, said pulmonary rehabilitation manager Gerilynn Connors. About 120 patients are in the maintenance program, Junk said.

Lung disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to a hospital press release. It is a growing problem in Northern Virginia, Montilla said.

Out of the roughly 1 million residents of Fairfax County, about 56,000 have adult asthma, 30,000 have chronic bronchitis, 21,000 have pediatric asthma, and 10,000 have emphysema, according to the American Lung Association.

Gloria Ross had a heart attack three years ago at age 62. In addition, she suffers from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

After the heart attack, Ross curtailed many normal activities.

The program “has gotten me back to the road to recovery,” Ross said.

Ross now volunteers at a food pantry and does many other activities outside of her home.

“My family is saying, ‘Look at you; look at the sparkle in your face,’” Ross said.

Even before the start of Inova Fairfax Hospital’s Lung Games, six participants volunteered to take the trip to the international Lung Games taking place May 26-28 in Chicago.

Patients need a good deal of courage to travel to a different city, Junk said. They have to feel secure that there will be oxygen waiting for them when they arrive.

The hospital is providing all expenses for the trip, Junk said.