Pulmonary Rehab Helps Patients Breathe Easier

For more than 17 years, Linda Johnson-Kabisch has made pulmonary rehab an important part of her life. Since she retired from teaching in 2001, she’s attended 1,700 sessions of rehab—something she credits with helping her maintain an active lifestyle.

“Having respiratory problems does not mean the end of a person’s activity level,” she said. “There are things that people can do to improve their breathing.”

Linda, 73, has experienced respiratory problems for many years due to scoliosis, a condition in which the spine has a sideways curve and can restrict lung capacity. “I’ve always been somewhat short of breath, but it became more of a problem as I aged,” she said.

Her primary care physician recommended a sleep study, which revealed that her oxygen levels dropped during deep sleep. Following a pulmonary function test, Linda’s doctor suggested she begin pulmonary rehab.

Pulmonary conditions fall into two categories: obstructive and restrictive. Obstructive lung conditions are caused by blocked airways, and include common conditions like COPD. Patients with restrictive lung conditions, like Linda, are unable to fill their lungs fully with air due to scarring or other medical conditions. Both these groups of patients can benefit from the education and exercise involved in pulmonary rehab.

“We strive to first educate the patient on their lung disease and the benefits, use and purpose of their medication to stabilize and optimize their lung health,” said Debbie Yeaman, a registered nurse and respiratory therapist who works with Memorial Medical Center pulmonary rehab patients. “We include education throughout their time with us on topics ranging from home exercise, blood pressure, eating habits and sleeping needs. We treat the whole person, improving their quality of life day-to-day.”

In addition to education, rehab patients take part in exercise to improve muscle strength and function, as well as endurance. Rehab staff teach techniques to help breathing control, reducing anxiety and fear in patients who experience shortness of breath.

“Exercise improves body strength, increasing independence and confidence and reducing the risk of falls,” Yeaman said. “The stronger a person is, the more confidence they have to engage, socialize and be out and about.”

After a bout of flu in 2015 that turned into bronchitis, Linda began using supplemental oxygen full-time. But she hasn’t let it slow her down. She credits rehab with helping her continue to pursue her interests—including teaching weaving at a local craft club—despite her respiratory difficulties.

“I’ve been able to maintain my lifestyle,” she said.

Yeaman said that as muscles increase in strength, they use less oxygen—helping patients feel less shortness of breath as they exercise or go about their daily activities.

“The benefits of rehab are seen in all patients, whether they are on oxygen or not,” she said. “Exercise can decrease a patient’s oxygen needs because muscle efficiency increases.”

Linda said she also appreciates the camaraderie with her fellow rehab participants, who become “like a little family” over many sessions together. She also benefits from the support of the staff, who look out for the health and overall well-being of everyone who participates.

Recently, when her blood pressure began reading higher than normal, rehab staff encouraged her to see her primary care physician. She did, and a medication change helped alleviate the problem.

“The staff is very watchful and supportive,” she said. “I feel like rehab is my security blanket.”