Taking big breaths of life

Published on: April 19, 2012

Fred and Thelma Davis. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Fred and Thelma Davis. Mitch Traphagen Photo


SUN CITY CENTER — Fred Davis, along with his wife Thelma, stepped off the cruise ship in Aruba and took a deep breath. It was an accomplishment that only six months earlier had seemed impossible. The air in Aruba is clean from the ocean, heavy and fragrant. Not long ago, the couple would not have known that. Not long ago, Fred would have been short of breath by simply trying to leave his cabin on the ship.

Last year, The Observer News featured an article about a then-new program at Sun Towers in Sun City Center known as the Better Breathers Support Group. The article featured the first three graduates from the program, including Robert Cramer, who very nearly gave himself up for dead before dramatically turning his life around thanks to the program. Now a year later, it has continued, and, like Cramer, it is stronger and better than ever.

On Tuesday in the dining room at Sun Towers, Robin Mason, a registered nurse and licensed health care risk manager at South Bay Hospital, was giving a presentation to a large group of people enrolled in the Better Breathers program. Mason was speaking about the effects of high and low blood pressure on people suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). For people like Mason, her titles are not just elements of a job and are far more than a paycheck. She has dedicated her life to making the lives of others better. She is the Heart Failure Coordinator at South Bay and sponsors a monthly support group free of charge for the entire community. She then talked to the group about atrial fibrillation and COPD and gave them all materials to take home.

Like Mason, Lorrie Quinstad, the director of the Sun Towers pulmonary rehabilitation program, is more than just an employee; hers is more than just a job. To her it is a miracle. Those in the program who have told her as much and more reinforce that notion.

Fred Davis had one remaining goal and that was to be able to keep up with his attractive, smiling, bubbly and fast-walking wife, Thelma. That was the quantifiable goal — the real objective was to regain their quality of life. His focus, however, remained on just being able to keep up with her, to be able to walk fast enough to catch up to Thelma.

“We spent too much time in hospitals,” Fred said. “Our life needed changing.”

Fred and Thelma joined the Sun Towers program on August 25. One of the tests performed for joining the program was a six-minute walk during which Fred experienced shortness of breath and a tightening in his chest. Quinstad recommended he see a cardiologist who actually called 911 upon seeing him. After several days in the hospital, the cardiologist recommended that Fred resume the Better Breathers program. His life began to change.

“You can change your future,” he said. “We want quality of life. Lots of people retire and sit around to watch TV and complain. But that’s not us, it doesn’t have to be that way. Why wouldn’t people want a good quality of life?  It’s not easy going over there and pushing those machines [referring to the pulmonary / physical therapy workout room at Sun Towers] and your body might be saying you don’t want to work out, but that’s unacceptable. So then you push even harder.”

Lorrie Quinstad is now seeing miracles every day. Fred and Thelma have reclaimed their lives in ways they could not have imagined only months prior. Just like Robert Cramer has reclaimed his life. Struggling to breath is certainly one of life’s greatest struggles for some. It is easy to give up hope; it is easy to think the end is near. Breathing is taken for granted and when it becomes a problem, it can sap the energy and spirit out of the most energetic and hopeful people. Up to 15 million people in the United States suffer from chronic lung diseases, with likely millions more suffering undiagnosed, falsely assuming there is nothing to help them and silently giving up on life itself.

“This is such a wonderful service to the community,” Quinstad said. “I feel that awareness and education are important components to a healthy lifestyle.”

Quinstad feels so strongly about it because she knows there are people needlessly suffering and she knows there is help for them. She knows, as Fred and Thelma know, that lives can be changed. Quality of life shouldn’t decline with age, it should get better.

In just six months, Fred and Thelma have changed their lives for the better. In just six months, Fred has gone from losing his breath on a short walk to walking seven flights of stairs at Sun Towers. (He wanted to do 10 flights, but his therapist was unsure of her ability to do it.) During those six months, they passed on a long-planned cruise feeling their therapy was more important. They purchased another cruise for when they completed the program. A few weeks ago, they stepped off the ship and breathed in the fragrant air of Aruba, knowing what they were experiencing and how they felt would have been impossible only six months earlier.

The program is now a part of their lifestyle. Fred and Thelma continue to work out; they continue to improve their quality of life. And the focus is on life — it’s theirs, together, and it is only getting better. Fred and Thelma are happy, gracious people who are quick to smile and to share a warm touch on the shoulder while talking or joking with a candid laugh. They take deep breaths of life and are grateful for it. Their lives have changed.

“Thelma is walking past me right now,” Fred said during a recent telephone call. “She is carrying a big box. It used to be that it would take both of us to carry something like that but not anymore. And she’s walking pretty fast.”

I said goodbye to Fred then, ending our conversation. I knew he probably wanted to catch up to his wife.