Janey Richardson, 70, of Castalia, said there is nothing more scary than feeling like you can’t breathe.

Richardson said she experiences a sense of helplessness when she is trying to take a deep breath and her body will not cooperate.

“It’s a terrible feeling and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” Richardson said.

Diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in 2006, Richardson said while it’s a concerning diagnosis, she’s worked with Dr. Jenee Bowman, to slow the progression and manage the symptoms.

COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and refractory (non-reversible) asthma. This disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness.

According to COPD International, 12 million Americans currently have COPD and an estimated 12 million more are undiagnosed. Smoking is the main cause of COPD, but it is also linked with exposure to second-hand smoke or other environmental pollutants. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Richardson said she has been hospitalized three times when she couldn’t get her breathing under control. COPD symptoms can worsen quickly, causing a flare-up or exacerbation. Richardson received treatment and was able to go home after a hospital stay. She credits Bowman with helping her learn how to live with COPD and pushing her to try things like the Cardiac Rehab program at Nash UNC.

The 36-session Cardiac Rehab program seeks to help patients recover from a heart attack, heart transplant or heart failure and help patients like Richardson improve their lung capacity and strength when living with a chronic pulmonary illness.

Cardiology nurses, exercise specialists and registered respiratory therapists offer education and support to help make healthy lifestyle changes. The end goal is for patients to be active and improve their heart health. Depending on your condition, prescribed cardiac rehabilitation may include:

• Aerobic exercise

• Strength training

• Stretching and flexibility exercises

Michael Sohn, manager of the cardiopulmonary rehab program at Nash UNC, says communication and building a relationship with patients who come through the program is a key component to their success.

He says each patient referred to the program completes a new patient consultation or orientation that offers the patient the opportunity to tour the facility, meet the staff, observe a class and sit down one-on-one with a staff member to discuss medical history and explain the details of the program. “Personally, I think it’s the most important interaction we have with our patients,” Sohn said. “It’s a time when relationships are established and trust begins to form. Many patients are wary of the program or improvement, but many graduate with a sense of great accomplishment.”

Richardson said the encouragement she received from the rehab staff put her at ease and made her learn to look forward to going.

“You become so scared to exert yourself or do anything that might trigger a flare-up,” Richardson said. “So the whole idea of pushing myself to get better did not seem like a good idea. But I trusted Dr. Bowman and after meeting the nurses and everyone at the rehab office, I decided to really work hard at it. And they were right — it really helped me.”

Richardson said everyone was helpful and encouraging during her rehab. She especially liked the information, handouts and instructions about what each exercise or piece of equipment was for and appreciated how professional and comforting everyone in the center was.

After she “graduated” from the program, she brought in a treat for the cardiac rehab staff: Cupcakes decorated with frosting and a red lung on each one.

She said she hopes others will try the program and see good results like she has.

“I just really encourage others to give it a try. The best way not to be scared anymore is to get educated about COPD or whatever kind of cardiopulmonary problem you have,” Richardson said. “I was not happy at first to go, but I am so glad I did. I plan on keeping up what I learned and hopefully get even stronger.”