Any doubts about quitting smoking? Visit a hospital

In hospital, it’s in-your-face clear: if you smoke, your odds of disease and death go up. Quitting smoking is the greatest gift you can give your own health and would be an incredible start to 2016, writes Katrina Bolton.

Resolving to quit smoking this new year? Don’t wait. Go for it with everything you’ve got.

Three years ago I swapped journalism for medicine. About a year ago I started spending time in hospitals and began meeting the smokers. There are a lot of them in hospitals. That’s the nature of smoking, it ups your odds of pretty much everything you don’t want to get.

The first reality-slap was seeing a man I’ll call James. He had end-stage Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It’s actually more common effect of smoking than lung cancer, just not as well known. Doctors say each letter: “C-O-P-D”. It’s code for a host of problems, one of which is that your lungs can gradually lose their elastic. When you breathe in your lungs can’t recoil. Take a breath in for a moment. Now imagine that you can’t actually breathe out – every breath has to be in and out above that point. All day, every day. Essentially, that’s where COPD takes you. It’s progressive. It starts mildly, and doctors can help ease the effects, but ultimately, it gets worse.

“James could only speak a few words at a time. But he was really clear that he didn’t want to die.” 

James seared onto my brain because he looked like a fish out of water. Fast, tiny breaths, gasp, gasp, gasp. Big eyes. Gasp, gasp. He wasn’t that old, early 70’s maybe. But he spent day in, day out, gasping. His wife sat watching, powerless.

James could only speak a few words at a time. But he was really clear that he didn’t want to die. Said he wasn’t ready to. That he had lots of things he still wanted to do. It hurt to hear it, because even a medical student could see he was going to die sooner rather than later. And that about the most ambitious thing he would be able to do before then would be to have a hot shower. Then gasp.

Another time, it was a man with a tumour that seemed to be growing out the back of his tongue. He’d ignored it, as you do. But eventually he’d come in to the Emergency Department. By then the word the doctor settled on to describe the mass was “fungating”. The man didn’t say much. He was alone. The tumour had already spread, you could feel it in his neck. There would be samples taken, tests done. Pathologists would confirm the cancer and pinpoint where the tumour started. It didn’t take much imagination to know where it would end.

Those people, for want of a better term, were the slow burners. Unlike the woman whose heart just stopped beating. Consider this – she’s having a totally normal day. Then she develops some chest pain and decides not to ignore it. When I see her lying in the hospital bed she looks OK. She’s not old, not really fat, no risk factors for a heart attack other than smoking. She’s chatting away when the heart monitor suddenly starts beeping. She fades into quiet and machine trace shows wavy lines, there is no rhythm anymore. Her husband looks confused and then afraid as nurses and doctors swoop in. Within two minutes he goes from talking with his wife to seeing her essentially dead – exposed and unresponsive as a nurse starts the chest compressions of CPR. The wait is beyond awful, but eventually a jolt of electricity starts her heart beating again. She gets a second chance.

Seeing these things is raw and real. These people aren’t the ads. None of them said they thought something like this would happen to them. You could argue about how much smoking contributed, or whether they might have gotten sick anyway. Certainly nasty things happen to non-smokers too. But as a rule, those people are the outliers – the really unlucky ones. In hospital, it’s in-your-face clear: smoke, and your odds go up. It’s like a pokie machine where you don’t want the prize. Each time you smoke, you keep hitting the button. Clogged arteries. Strokes. Heart attacks. Osophageal cancer. Bladder Cancer. Bing, bing, bing.

Quitting is hard, of course. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures suggest almost one-third of smokers try but fail to quit in a year. But as with any gamble, you’ve got to try, or you can’t possibly succeed. Nicotine replacement therapy can up the chances of success by about 50 per cent, depending on which study you look at. Some GPs have special expertise in helping people quit. The Quitline can help with tailored advice, or if you want you can arrange call-backs so someone is checking on how you’re going. Friends might help, family may too. But ultimately it’s down to you.

So if it’s not too late yet, your lungs aren’t sliding down a path of destruction, no nasty mass has started growing in your mouth and your heart’s still beating, if you’re thinking of quitting – go for it. Quitting smoking is the greatest gift you can give your own health. Do it for yourself. Or for your family. You might fail. But you might just succeed. And that would be an incredible start to 2016.

Quitline provides advice on quitting smoking: 13 7848 (13 QUIT).

Katrina Bolton is a Walkley winning former ABC journalist who is now studying medicine.


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