Joan and Helen, COPD patient climbing the great wall of China

Joan's story: overcoming the challenges of COPD to fulfil a lifelong dream

Joan, 85, is a patient with COPD who recently fulfilled her lifelong dream to climb the Great Wall of China, despite her condition. Here, her daughter Helen tells how making the right choices enabled Joan to return to an active lifestyle.

My mum Joan is a proud Texan who lives at 8,700 feet up on a mountain in Colorado. Like many growing up in the 40s and 50s, she started smoking as a teenager. She quit when she turned 48, but sadly the damage was already done. She developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a common but serious lung disease that limits airflow to the lungs, interfering with normal breathing.

Mum has always been one tough cookie, and up until her 70s, still managed an active lifestyle. She was often seen skiing down the mountain slopes, as well as on the tennis courts!

Joan, COPD patient, on a boat
Joan enjoying a boat trip to see the Leshan Giant Buddha

But over time, mum began to slow down and felt limited in what she could do because she just couldn’t catch her breath - something that most of us do every day without thinking.

Step by step her world was getting smaller

I started noticing more changes in mum’s activity levels and health whenever I visited her - a common cold would quickly escalate into something more serious. But she seemed resigned to it and wasn’t aware that she was changing her activity level to accommodate her condition. 

She started to experience exacerbations, (often described as flare-ups, these are sudden severe worsening of symptoms), and was prescribed a cycle of inhalers, which had a large, impact on her daily routine.

My brother and I spent many a night worrying about her ability to live independently, safely, and not just sat in a chair disengaged with her body because she couldn’t catch her breath.

Mum started to visit her healthcare team regularly, and during a regular check up, the pulmonologist found a dark spot on her chest x-ray. Subsequently, the right middle lobe in her lung was removed because of a benign tumor. Following her discharge from hospital, she was prescribed a twice daily inhaler.  

Managing COPD

I checked to see that she was taking her meds, she wasn’t. After contacting her physician, I found out my mother wasn’t taking her COPD medicine as prescribed and never refilled them.

It was a real shock to hear this. She’d always been so active in her community and had a strong track record of taking good care of others that I assumed she’d apply the same care to her own health. I now understood why her health was increasingly starting to suffer.

Mum confessed to me that she hadn’t been taking her medication. We sat down together with her physician and discussed what the inhaler was for, the correct technique for using it, and, crucially, what to expect if she took it as prescribed.  This was a life changer - it meant she could go back to the independent lifestyle she craved.

Climbing the Great Wall of China at 85

Mum is now proactive about being as healthy as she can, and, in her typical fashion, tries new things at a pace I can barely keep up with.

Most importantly, she has been able to stay in the high-altitude community she loves, which she attributes to being able to breathe easier. She is so much happier and we worry less as a family.

Last October, we travelled to China together for 16 days and she fulfilled her lifelong dream to climb the Great Wall of China. In preparation, mum worked with a physical therapist to build up stamina, rode an exercise bike and stayed true to her medication regime. It paid off as she easily outpaced the 60 and 70 year olds on the tour! 

Joan, COPD patient sitting on the wall of China
Joan climbing the Great Wall of China

One hot day in Beijing, she walked over seven miles, and as others in our group were dropping off, she kept on going. She climbed the hill up and down at the Summer Palace, and never once complained. Together we have many more adventures left in her future.