The Girl Scout motto implores its members to always be prepared. Yet Scout leader Valerie Chang was caught off guard when she woke up gasping for air in the middle of the night at a Girl Scout campout for her daughter 12 years ago.
“I thought I might need some new asthma medication,” says Valerie, who has had the condition throughout her life. When she got home she saw her healthcare provider, who performed a physical and found nothing wrong. But Valerie, just 42 at the time, insisted on further testing. “If nothing else, I wanted to get my friends and family to stop pestering me about why I was having [trouble breathing],” says the Honolulu resident.
Ultimately, Valerie was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), specifically emphysema, a lung illness that can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Turns out, having asthma increases your odds of developing COPD, according to University of Arizona research. “I was relieved to get a diagnosis and find treatment that allows me to sleep soundly, wake rested and continue leading a full and active life,” she recalls.
Today, Valerie takes medication and exercises regularly to improve her breathing and stay healthy. In 2007, she founded the nonprofit Hawaii COPD Coalition, hawaiicopd.org. “We’re setting up lung health clinics, which will offer free breathing tests and information, at medical facilities throughout the state,” says Valerie.
Here, her strategies for living a full life with COPD:
- Create an action plan. “Talk with your doctor about the steps you should take if you notice any change in your symptoms,” says Valerie.
- Stay active. Valerie takes walks, meditates, practices yoga and plays tennis.
- Keep colds at bay. Infections last longer when you have COPD, so steer clear of friends, family members and acquaintances who are ill. “I try to stay away from large groups,” says Valerie.
- Travel wisely. A plane’s pressurized air can cause breathing difficulties. “I use supplemental oxygen from a personal oxygen concentrator for altitudes of 3,500 feet and above,” says Valerie. “I also travel with antibiotics and antiviral medications in case I develop an infection while I’m away.”