Harold’s Journey to the Top

Harold Whitnail

Harold Whitnail

When it comes to overcoming obstacles, Harold Whitnall has faced and conquered it all.

A Vietnam veteran who lost his father to emphysema, Harold’s lung has collapsed five times in the past 40 years, beginning when he was 25 years old. Diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Harold, now 65, was suffering on a daily basis with a severely limiting condition.

“I was having trouble breathing, period. I couldn’t mow my lawn, I couldn’t vacuum my house, so I talked to my doctor and asked if there was anything I could do to make this better,” Harold said. “He said I had three choices. I could do lung volume reduction surgery, be put on oxygen or I could go to pulmonary rehab. I asked what that was and he said, ‘It’s you putting in the effort to breathe.’ So I went. And it’s the best thing I ever did.”

Memorial Medical Center’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation is a multidisciplinary program that provides education and exercise classes to help those with moderate to severe lung disease to improve strength and endurance  so daily activities can be accomplished more easily.

Over the past two and a half years, the Divernon native’s twice-weekly rehab appointments have improved his abilities more than he previously dreamed.

“I used to get winded just doing warm-ups,” he said. “After five minutes on the treadmill at a speed of one-and-a-half miles per hour, I was exhausted.”

His driving force? A desire to visit Alcatraz. The island, a national landmark in San Francisco and home to the famed federal penitentiary, requires a great deal of walking and the road to the prison is a quarter mile at a 12-percent incline. Harold knew he couldn’t do it. Yet.

“When I started at 1 mile per hour at a flat incline, I’d start breathing hard and think, ‘This is ridiculous,’” he said. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But I didn’t give up.”

In June 2013, after practicing his incline-walking abilities for a month, Harold was deemed ready to face Alcatraz, and it’s a trip he and his wife will never forget.

“My dad was never able to do that,” he said. “I was happy I could do that for him.”

Now, Harold continues his twice-weekly walks at a 12-percent incline and also does the elliptical machine and several other machines. One of the only men in his rehab group (“I’m the thorn that holds the roses together,” he said), his hard work and dedication serves as inspiration to his fellow rehabilitants.

“This is not a miracle cure. If I miss, I can tell a difference,” Harold said. “I have to start low and work myself back up. If you come in here, you have to expect to keep up with it.”

After conquering Alcatraz, Harold dedicated himself to completing his next goal: the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb at the Hilton in Springfield. In January, Harold committed to stair climb training. Over the course of eight weeks, Harold gradually increased from 150 stairs to 600 stairs in preparation for his big day.

“I only had to do 523,” he said. “But I thought, what the heck? What’s a few more?”

When it came to the daunting climb, Harold had little fear.

“I’m ready. I feel good about it,” he said before the event. “I know it’s going to take me a while to get up there. I’m prepared. And I know I will do it. If my nurse has to drag me up, I know I’m going to do it.”

Like the prize of arriving at Alcatraz, Harold was excited at the prospect of having another incentive waiting for him at the finish line: His daughter and son-in-law would also be participating and would meet him at the top, along with his wife and grandchildren, who are a big source of inspiration.

“Playing with them, spending time with them, that’s big for me,” he said. “They know I have a problem. Every now and then they’ll tell me, ‘OK, Grandpa, it’s time to take a break.’ But we do a lot. Fishing, woodworking, bike riding. We know when to quit and when to keep going. They’re watching Grandpa.”

Harold knows as far as he’s come, he’s not cured.


Harold reaches his goal!

“I have the option of having surgery or being put on oxygen later,” he said. “But I’m going to try to avoid that as long as I can. I know what I have, I know what’s going to happen someday. But for now, my life is just as normal as anyone else’s.”

On Saturday, Feb. 22, Harold reached his goal and completed the Fight for Air Climb, climbing 32 flights of stairs in 27 minutes, 8 seconds. He credits his rehab team for getting him all the way to the top.

“It’s the best thing I ever did,” Harold says of MMC’s Cardiopulmonary Rehab. “It gave me my life back. It’s different, but it’s back.”