Lung Volume Reduction Patient Tackles Emphysema, Fight for Air Climb

Mary Cohen will join hundreds of other local residents Feb. 25 in a climb to the top of the Wyndham Springfield City Centre hotel: 32 floors, 532 steps.

The American Lung Association Fight for Air Climb raises funds and awareness for lung disease research. Each year, more than 30,000 people take part in the grueling events nationwide, testing their physical fitness while supporting the cause.

But a year ago, Mary, 53, couldn’t even make it up one flight of stairs without gasping for breath.

At the time, she depended on prescription inhalers to get through the day. Although she hadn’t smoked for four years, her condition kept getting worse. Like many of her colleagues in the salon where she worked, she suffered from frequent respiratory issues caused by chemicals in common nail products. As her mobility became limited, she began doing nails for clients in her home instead.

“I couldn’t do anything, because I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “It was terrible.”

She stayed busy taking online classes, playing guitar and making jewelry. She even earned her pastoral credentials. But she longed for a more active lifestyle.

Tests revealed that Mary had emphysema, COPD and asthma. But Springfield Clinic physician Samir Patel, MD, who specializes in pulmonary disease, also gave her some good news: There was a chance that she would qualify for Lung Volume Reduction Surgery at Memorial Medical Center.

“As soon as I heard that, I knew it was an answer to prayer,” Mary said.

‘The journey is a little different for everyone’

Not every patient with emphysema is a good candidate for the procedure, which removes the most diseased portions of the lungs in order to allow the healthy portions room to expand. MMC is one of only a handful of hospitals in the United States that have LVRS programs certified by The Joint Commission.

Patients must undergo an array of tests to assess lung function and overall health to determine if the surgery is a good option. To qualify, they also must be smoke-free for at least four months and be able to walk for 30 minutes at a time following at least 10 weeks of pulmonary rehabilitation. Candidacy for the surgery is assessed by a care team that includes not only surgeons and pulmonary physicians but also cardiologists, pulmonary rehab professionals, physical and occupational therapists, dietitians and others.

“The journey is a little different for everyone,” said Joni Colle, BSN, RN, RRT, AE-C, CCRP, who guides patients through the LVRS program. Some candidates are ready for the procedure within a couple of months; for others, it takes longer.

Because the most damaged portions of her lungs were in the upper lobes, the LVRS team determined that Mary was a strong candidate for the surgery. The procedure was performed by Stephen Hazelrigg, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon with SIU Medicine, on Oct. 10, 2017.

‘There is hope’

It was during her nine-day hospital stay after surgery that Mary first heard about the upcoming American Lung Association Fight for Air Climb from one of her nurses.

“I thought it would be a good goal,” she said.

Recovery from LVRS can be slow and is different for everyone. But Mary was thrilled when, not long after surgery, she did something she hadn’t done in years: Take a deep breath. Now, she’s able to get out and enjoy life again. She recently began volunteering at MMC, inspired by the quality care she received as a patient.

Later this month, Mary will join members of the LVRS team, including Colle, as they climb the steps at the Wyndham Springfield City Centre. They call themselves “Team LVRS: Takin’ it Off the Top.” Mary has spent a lot of time at pulmonary rehab and the gym this winter, particularly on the stair climb. There, she encourages others with breathing difficulties to stay positive.

“I want to let people know that there is hope,” she said. “There is something that can be done.”

For more information about Lung Volume Reduction Surgery or if you would like to climb in support of Mary with Team LVRS: Takin’ it off the Top, contact Joni Colle at 217-545-0342 or