I interviewed Jim Steele on October 18th, coincidentally his birthday, and a year ago to the day that he quit smoking.
“I stopped smoking for no other reason than there was something wrong with me. And then in November [of 2009] I was diagnosed with Stage 3 COPD, and my world just kind of fell out from underneath me,” Steele says. “I’m a man, and if something’s hurting me I can grab a hold of it and make it stop, but I couldn’t do anything about this. I realized that breath of life was really what it was all about.”
Steele, who lives in Portland, Oregon, recalls feeling scared upon hearing his diagnosis, because he felt helpless.
“I’m a big person and I was scared. I smoked for over 40 years. And when I quit, I was still at two packs a day,” he says. “I made the decision, smoke or breathe. And I want to breathe.”
Quitting cold turkey worked for Steele, but only after spending time and money on hypnosis and other methods.
“My logic at that point was that I’d have a cigarette to calm my nerves. On my first mission trip to Africa 2007 I signed a contract saying I couldn’t smoke, so I was able to quit for three months,” he says. “When life wasn’t going perfect, to calm my nerves I started smoking again. But on the day that I quit, I still remember thinking, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ This time I really meant it.”
When he was first diagnosed, Steele says he did not know what COPD was.
“I knew what emphysema was, and I just thought, ‘This isn’t happening to me.’ And it did, and I was really scared. There’s no other word,” he says. “Now, when people are first diagnosed I can feel exactly in my heart what that was like.”
Since his diagnosis, Steele says he’s educated himself about COPD, by reading everything he can about it, and making friends with other COPDers.
October 13th of this year he was put on oxygen, and says “it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Since I was diagnosed with COPD, what I do in a day was what I used to do when I got home from work. [Things like] mowing the yard, cleaning the pool,” he says. “I got to where just taking a shower I was in bad shape. I’d have to sit down and get my breath.”
Since his diagnosis, Steele says he’s gained around 60 pounds, because he hasn’t been able to exercise. Now, with his oxygen, he’s beginning to walk more and more every day.
“I’m getting my life back and I’ve just been on oxygen for five days. I realize that if I can get the weight off me, it will help my breathing a lot, too,” he says. “In fact, I was told when I was first diagnosed they didn’t think I had a year left. And I have surpassed that and want to go as long as I can.”
Steele and his wife, Debra, both did mission work in Uganda, where he was a painting contractor. He says it was a life-changing experience; to work with children who grew up with nothing, yet able to be happy. Debra works helping children in need for Food for the Hungry. Before that she worked in the banking business.
“I worked hard all my life and seeing her going off to work and me just sitting around, it ate a big hole in me, because I realized there was nothing I could do about it,” he says. “Now, my days are a lot more positive.”
Steele says “being able to keep going” keeps him motivated, as well as groups such as COPD-International, and of course his friends and family.
“This is a life-changing deal, and you have to live completely different,” he says. “If you don’t have support you’re alone. And I was there. COPD affects us all differently.”