Posts Tagged congenital heart defect

My Journey to the Center of the Lungs

February 16th, 2011 | Author: Katelyn Turner

This blog was written by Karen Thurston Chavez, who rode the COPD Shuttle: Journey to the Center of the Lung February 9th in Tallahasee, FL.


I’m such a nerd. Who else gets all hyped up about climbing into a virtual ride called the “COPD Shuttle”? Well, truth is, we all should!

In fewer than 10 minutes, I learned a lot about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — the term used to describe progressive lung diseases that include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (irreversible) asthma, and severe bronchiectasis. A term I’m all too familiar with.

When I heard the Shuttle was coming to Tallahassee, Florida, I expected to take a walk-through tour inside a converted charter bus. I was not expecting to hop into a metal box that would gently toss me around like a virtual kiddy coaster. Mind you, I get motion sick on playground swings! I was a little nervous when the hatch-like doors dropped down and closed with a hydraulic hiss.

But I took a deep breath – no pun intended – and was determined to learn more about the disease that claimed my father’s life 10 years ago (March 20), and the disease my mother battles every day. I need to learn more about the condition that my younger son may eventually face because of his asthma, persistent respiratory infections, and his congenital heart defect (scimitar syndrome).

Karen's husband and older son (who is now 15), and mother and father in 1998, before they had ever heard the phrase COPD.

As promised, the COPD Shuttle took me on a journey to the center of the lungs – right smack into the middle of the alveoli, those tiny, critically important sacs deep inside in the lungs that perform gas exchange. Alveoli help our bodies get rid of carbon dioxide and pick up oxygen.

As I drifted through bronchial tubes, the narrator described healthy lungs while the Shuttle gently rocked in rhythm with normal breathing. Then the narrator talked about what smoking and pollutants can do to the delicate interiors of our lungs. Slowly, the airways on the screen began narrowing, darkening and filling with mucous. The Shuttle bumps a little as the normal breathing turns raspy and fast. Suddenly, there’s a loud COUGH! The Shuttle jolts and thumps as I’m “expelled” from the lung through an acute, congested, diseased-induced cough.

As I re-enter the outside world, I learn more about the COPD Foundation, COPD and how symptoms can be treated.

Until the Shuttle, I did not realize that COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, with heart disease first and cancer second. (That’s very interesting for me because in addition to COPD, my father also had heart disease and cancer.)

If you think you might be at risk for developing COPD, learn more about it and get a simple breathing test (spirometry) done to measure your lung function. Early diagnosis and treatment can slow the progression of the disease and improve quality of life.

I wish my parents were diagnosed earlier so they could have begun treatment and disease management sooner in their lives. Since my Shuttle experience, I’ve been talking with friends and family about their risk for the disease and the importance of early diagnosis. It reaffirmed my belief that I not only need to continue watching and asking about my son’s pulmonary health, but I need to teach him that taking care of his lungs is equally important as taking care of his mended heart.

I was counting on that COPD Shuttle to give me a good look at the inside of human lungs, and help me understand better a disease that has affected my life. And it did. Thank you, COPD Foundation!