A former patient of West Park Healthcare Centre’s Respiratory Rehabilitation Service, Canadian media icon Peter Gzowski wanted to do anything he could to help his “Breathing Academy” create awareness about the disease that would eventually claim his life.
In January 2002, Peter died from complications of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), but not before testifying in print and on television to what West Park had done for him, and thousands of others like him, to manage the disease. In his honour, West Park Healthcare Centre Foundation created the Peter Gzowski Fund, which was officially launched on January 16, 2003, at a tribute dinner attended by 500 people from the media, business and health care fields.
The endowed fund, which is supported by pharmaceutical manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Inc. as a lead partner, among other donors, will enable West Park to fund new research related to respiratory rehabilitation, develop educational materials for individuals with COPD and establish new respiratory program activities.
More than 1.6 million Canadians live with COPD, the fourth most common cause of mortality in North America today and the only cause of death that is rising in prevalence. COPD represents several respiratory conditions (most commonly chronic bronchitis and emphysema), characterized by shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing.
COPD develops as a result of lung damage caused over many years of smoking (estimates place smoking as the number one cause of COPD in 95 per cent of cases) or exposure to occupational or environmental pollutants. As the disease progresses, individuals with COPD experience reduced quality of life due to deteriorating lung function.
Lorraine LeBlanc, who smoked for almost 30 years before quitting at the age of 43, says that had she known about COPD as a teenager and the devastating effect the disease would have on her later in life, she would never have started smoking in the first place. Now 67, the Toronto resident realizes that despite breaking the habit several years ago, the damage to her lungs from smoking had already been done.
“It’s like holding your nose and running all day, while trying to breathe through a straw: you’re always out of breath,” says Lorraine, describing the challenge of breathing with COPD. Even the physical effort required to vacuum her small apartment was, in her words, “a killer.”
“COPD affects everything: from the time you get up to the time you go to bed,” she adds. “There isn’t anything that doesn’t involve breathing. When you can’t catch your breath, it is very frightening.”
In 2001, there were 11,000 deaths due to COPD in Canada. Like most respiratory diseases, COPD generally affects adults over the age of 55. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Canada’s aging population will mean mortality rates for those with this disease are likely to double over the next 12 years.
For women, COPD is especially lethal. While in the past COPD has affected primarily men, the rise in the number of female smokers in the last 50 years is now resulting in the increased prevalence of chronic lung disease among women. By 2016, about two-thirds of COPD-related deaths in Canada will be women.
“In the 1940s, women smoked more than men because it was considered fashionable and lady-like,” says Lorraine. “So it makes perfect sense to me that more women now are starting to develop this disease.”
However, COPD can be managed effectively with a variety of therapies that have been shown to improve quality of life. The head of West Park’s respiratory program, Dr. Roger Goldstein says that even a small improvement in lung function can mean a significant health improvement for COPD sufferers.
At West Park’s Respiratory Rehabilitation Service, patients with COPD can learn techniques to clear their chests and control their breathing by maintaining a tailored regimen of regular exercise, stress management and nutrition. Dr. Goldstein feels that with increased public awareness, along with a focus on research, early detection and education of health care professionals, Canada’s health system should be able to respond to the growing threat of chronic lung disease.
“Other than smoking cessation, the most important factor in the management of COPD is to ensure patients maintain their exercises after discharge and receive adequate health/social support to help them cope,” says Dr. Goldstein, the respirologist who treated Lorraine and Peter. “Research will play a large role in determining the effectiveness of current treatment approaches and to finding new ways to reduce the burden of COPD on our society.”
Lorraine, who is now a “graduate” of West Park’s respiratory program, continues her exercises independently at home. She hopes that whatever outcomes are achieved through the Peter Gzowski Fund, everyone who has COPD should be given the same chances she’s had to manage the disease.
“West Park is the only reason I’m still here,” she says. “There should simply be more places like West Park. Research and awareness will go a long way to helping others like me.”
To contribute to the Peter Gzowski Fund, please visit www.petergzowskifund.org.
COPD is a leading cause of death and disability not only in Canada and North America, but also worldwide. According to the European Respiratory Society’s report to the World Health Organization, COPD is the fifth most significant global health problem and is expected to become the third leading cause of death in the world in the first quarter of this century.