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Story Last modified at 10:41 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Perils of smoking, witnessed first-hand
Mountain Echos - (First of two parts on dangers of smoking)

Frank E. Baker

Last month I watched helplessly as my sister, 77, succumbed to the ravages of emphysema, a debilitating lung disease that each year takes the life of about 100,000 people in the United States. Twenty-seven years ago my father went the same way.

In both cases, cigarette smoking was the primary cause. A few other facts: More than 3 million Americans (two out of every 1,000 residents) suffer from emphysema. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the country, and smoking accounts for more than 80 percent of all cases. An estimated 24.8 million men (23.1 percent) and 21.1 million women (18.3 percent) are smokers in this country.

When a person is suffering from emphysema, the tiny air sacs (called alveoli) in the lungs are damaged and lose their ability to stretch, mainly due to the destruction of capillaries feeding the alveoli. This allows air to become trapped in the lungs, making it difficult to exchange new air. This makes it hard to breathe and can lead to a host of lung problems, as well as death.

Emphysema may also be caused by exposure to irritants in the air such as air pollution, secondhand smoke, workplace chemicals, dust and exhaust fumes from automobiles and trucks. A person's health history may also have an impact on the development of the disease.

Taking on the challenge: I quit smoking about 26 years ago – not long after my father died. At that time I was up to about two packs a day. I started feeling numbness in my finger tips and sometimes had heart and shoulder pains. I always loved to hike and climb, but smoking made me short of breath. Health-wise, quitting was the best thing I ever did. Today I feel like I'm 35 and more active than I was at that age, which was quite a while ago.

Unlike many who successfully quit smoking, I didn't become judgmental and zealously antagonistic toward smokers. As an ex-smoker and one who breathed secondhand smoke since childhood, I had a developed quite a tolerance. In fact, I was motivated to help others through one of the American Cancer Society's smoking cessation programs. I coached a few people and followed up to make sure they were still smoke-free. It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.

One of my cynical political science professors once said that America was the best country in the world because we have the freedom to destroy ourselves any way we want. That's a very negative view, but to some extent I agree with it. I believe we should each have the freedom to make personal decisions, such as to smoke or not to smoke, consume alcohol or other substances or not. I am a very strong advocate for personal freedoms and personal responsibility.

But watching my sister gasp for air in her final days, and having felt the effects of secondhand smoke as a child, I again feel compelled to try and educate people – especially younger people – on the long-term dangers of smoking. Young people feel like they are invincible. I know I did.

Damage to the lungs is subtle at first. But the years add up. After more than 40 years of heavy cigarette smoking, comparable to that of my sister and father, the lung damage is severe and irreversible.

In her final days, my sister said it felt like she was breathing through a narrow drinking straw. For weeks and months she felt like she was drowning. I can't think of a worse way to go.

We all have choices. Emphysema, in most cases, is preventable. We take for granted the thousands of breaths we draw in every day, but not emphysema victims. For them, each breath is a new gift of life.

Next week: How I quit smoking.

Frank E. Baker is a free-lance writer and resident of Eagle River.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.