Jerry's Quit Smoking Story

"There is always some reason that you have to keep smoking..."

I was your typical midwestern kid in the seventies. They were showing all of us pictures of diseased lung tissue and telling us about the hazards of smoking. I remember vividly sitting in one of the health classes and saying that I would never smoke a cigarette. That lung tissue looked like Swiss cheese and it wasn't desirable to have.

What ended up happening was something completely different. I was hanging out with my "cool" older sister one day and she was smoking. She saw that my curiosity was piqued. She then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to learn how to smoke. I didn't think of that Swiss cheese lung tissue and at 14 years old made a life changing decision. "Sure" I said. I wanted to be "cool" like her.

I remember it like it was yesterday as I got so dizzy from it, but I decided to remain cool about it. In retrospect, I realize we weren't that cool and even less smart about the situation. But I knew how to smoke now and it didn't seem as awful as the teachers at school said. What was wrong with smoking anyway?

I guess the nicotine clouded my judgement from the beginning.

That day, I went to the store and bought my first pack of cigarettes. I was already 6'2" and wasn't questioned about my age. Cigarettes were cheap back then and even a teenager could afford them. I started off smoking a pack a day. At first, I smoked because I wanted to. Then it became a habit. Before very long, maybe 6 months at most, I was addicted. A freshman in high school who was already hooked. But I had plenty of time to quit. Maybe after high school.

One thing that happened is that I would buy different brands all the time. At first to try many out to find out what I liked best. But then without realizing it, none of them tasted that good. Only took 22 years for the companies to make one that had a flavor that was good. But by then, it wouldn't matter how it came as long as it had nicotine.

There is always some reason that you have to keep smoking, and here's my list:

  • The stress of a new job
  • The loss of a job
  • Starting nursing school
  • A relationship starting or ending
  • Family members dying

There is always a stressful event that will keep you coming back to the nicodemon. After a few failed attempts at trying to quit smoking, I realized that it was a serious problem. But how to do it without suffering.

A life changing event occurred that ended my smoking career. I fell down a flight of stairs. It's funny on tv but awful when it happens. A vertebrae was shattered and surgery would be necessary. In nursing school they teach you that smokers don't do as well with anesthesia and one should quit smoking if having surgery. I didn't. I did cut back to half a pack a day. It was the best I could do. On 12/21/05 at 10 pm, I had my last smoke...I hoped. The next morning, I went in for surgery.

Jerry's Quit Story continued...

I woke up and found that I had a breathing tube surgically placed in my throat and on a ventilator. I also had a feeding tube in my abdomen to give me nutrition. Something was horribly wrong.

I realized I was in ICU as that is where I work. But it was me at 39 years old fighting for my life. After surgery, I went into what is called respiratory distress. What it means is that the lungs can not keep up with the demand of oxygen and the removal of carbon dioxide. When too much CO2 gets in the bloodstream, it becomes harder to breathe and you start breathing rapidly to help your body out. I required a mechanical ventilator for 37 days. I also went into shock due to all the stress on the body.

I started waking up about day 35 for maybe an hour or two at a time. You hear about the first 2 weeks being hell and heck weeks. I was asleep for them. My partner walked in and realized that I was awake and recognized him for the first time in over a month. It took a day or two for me to realize all that had happened.

What is insane is that I wanted a cigarette.

It took over two months for me to be released from the hospital. As a nurse myself, I knew that no nurse would give me a cigarette and a lighter to go have one after what I had been through. So I was resigned to the fact that I had quit smoking.

My family doctor informed me that my lungs were in bad shape after 25 years of smoking. He said he would approximate by 2 years that I would have emphysema if I didn't stop. My partner said he would ram a vacuum hose down my throat if I wanted to remember what being on a ventilator was like. He was there 68 of the 69 days of my illness, so he can get away with saying that.

One thing that's very important to remember is that physical withdrawal isn't as bad as learning to live without smoking. I have a stressful job and I used smoking as a way to get away from the stress. You have to learn how to deal with life's ups and downs without a smoke. You get into a fight with your loved one and you have to deal with being hurt or mad.

You have a bad time at work, and you learn how to deal with it without smoking. But you do learn.

I always wanted to learn how to meditate. The practice I use most is called "mindfulness of breathing". I did it as a smoker, but it's a lot easier as a non smoker. That helps a great deal to keep me calm. I also come to the Smoking Cessation site and post on the board weekly. When I first started it was several times a day, but the guys kept telling me to come and post no matter what I felt. They taught me how to live without nicotine, one day at a time.

This holiday, I have been reminded of what was going on last Christmas. I was on full life support with a ventilator, medications to keep my blood pressure up, heart rhythm stable and asleep. This Christmas, I was smoke free and awake.

I have a little mark on my throat from where the tracheotomy tube was. I show that as a live teaching tool to patients and their families now as to what it is like to have one of them and what recovery is involved.

On Christmas night, I had two patients who I helped calm down without drugs by showing them and telling my story. So the gift I got was the gift of being able to help others through a turbulent time. And also, taking a deep breath is always a privilege now and I don't take it for granted.

Published: 1-15-2006

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