One Sevier County resident shares her story of survival with a word of warning to others about the dangers of smoking.
It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining and there’s a slight breeze. The skies are the kind of pure blue that you read about in storybooks.
But Karen Coleman can’t stay out here for long. It’s a matter of life and death.
“It’s too humid,” she says. “I can’t stay outside when it’s too humid because I can’t breathe.”
Coleman is living with one lung, the other having been removed due to Stage Three lung cancer that she blames on years of smoking. The American Lung Association recently rated Tennessee the fourth worst state in the nation for lung cancer rates.
“A cold to somebody else is like full-blown pneumonia to me,” Coleman says.
Smoking in the Smokies
Smoking is prevalent here in the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, and it’s been debilitating for many local residents. Coleman is one of them, having picked up her habit when she was 13 years old.
“I was with my cousin and my little brother,” Coleman says. “People in the house were smoking, so we decided we would smoke, too.”
That first encounter when she was a teenager in Ohio led to a lifetime of lighting up, and became a habit that followed her when she and her husband moved to Sevier County. When Coleman’s husband underwent open heart surgery she decided to stop smoking in support of his health, but she found out she couldn’t.
There were many attempts to kick the habit. Coleman had some success for a period of time after hypnosis, but the cravings eventually came back and she was soon hooked, again.
The breaking point for Coleman came after respiratory problems that just wouldn’t go away. She would see a doctor, get a prescription and get better for a little while, but then the congestion, wheezing, and bronchitis would come right back.
“I was so sick and exhausted and drained that I would go to work 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., come home and go to sleep at 3:00 p.m. and sleep all night long,” Coleman says, “because I just didn’t feel like getting up. I had no energy, and I coughed constantly.”
One day at work, Coleman says she coughed so much and so hard that she couldn’t breathe, and her face turned blue. Her concerned boss told her to make an appointment with a doctor and not to come back to work until she was healthy.
There happened to be an opening at the doctor’s office that same day, and Coleman worked right up until time for her appointment. Nurse practitioner Kristel Gibbons, FNP, didn’t like what she heard through the stethoscope.
Gibbons suspected pneumonia, but decided to order a chest x-ray at LeConte Medical Center before rendering a final diagnosis. Later that day, Coleman and her husband found themselves sitting in an office receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer.
Coleman begins to cry as she recounts what happened after that. She asked the doctor how much longer she was going to live.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Coleman says. “I was just so confused and I thought I was going to die.”
Pulmonologist Brandon Brown, MD, had been called in, and Coleman says he addressed her concerns with her with gentleness and compassion. There would be a biopsy before any decisions were made about the course of treatment.
Something inside Coleman snapped that day. As she left the doctor’s office, she shoved her cigarettes and her lighter in the glove compartment and vowed she would never smoke again. To this day, she has kept that promise.
On the day of her biopsy, Coleman’s loved ones had a scare when they received the news she had unexpectedly been placed on life support. A polyp on her vocal chords had slipped into her airway.
It was life-threatening, but they were assured that Coleman was lucky. If it had happened at home, it most certainly would have been fatal.
The polyp was removed and the biopsy was completed. In October of 2014, surgery was performed at LeConte’s sister hospital, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, to remove Coleman’s lung. Both Leconte and Fort Sanders Regional are part of the Covenant Health Network.
The procedure was painful both physically and emotionally, not just for Coleman, but for her husband and daughter, too. Cancer takes a toll on the entire family.
“I thought I was going to lose her,” Andy Coleman says, letting tears fall down his cheeks. He had accepted his own medical problems, but accepting his wife’s was harder. “Now she was the one in trouble,” he says.
Karen Coleman lived breath to breath, wondering if she might stop breathing at any moment. The pain was excruciating and the fear was paralyzing. For a while, she just wanted to die.
Coleman underwent cardiopulmonary rehabilitation at LeConte Medical Center at the same time she was dealing with chemotherapy. It was exhausting, but effective.
She began to regain her strength and she began to be able to breathe again. The pain eased over time, and the effects of the chemotherapy eventually went away.
Reminders of her lung cancer are still with her, though.
Coleman can’t be outside for very long if the weather is too humid, or too cold. She has to have oxygen at night, or anytime she does anything strenuous. She cries when she talks about the fact that she can’t work anymore, because her work ethic has always been a part of who she is.
“My whole life has changed,” Coleman says. “I wish I could go back. I wish I had never started smoking.”
Her husband gently reminds her that she can’t go back, and she has to keep looking forward. Coleman has learned to cope by finding her “new normal.” That’s something her daughter encouraged her to focus on during recovery from the surgery.
Coleman sees God’s hand in her story, saying she’s watched Him at work putting all the right people in the right places to save her life. She’s also grateful to everyone at LeConte Medical Center for their expert care, to cardiovascular surgeon Michael Maggart, MD, and to the nurses at Fort Sanders Regional.
She praises therapist Jay Jordan for the expert way he guided her through cardiopulmonary rehabilitation that gave her the strength to go on, always encouraging her and always pushing her to get the most out of each session.
“I had the best doctors and the best care,” Coleman says.
Coleman is now living with new habits, and a positive attitude. Her faith is strong, and her determination to help others learn from her mistakes is strong, too.
Referring to smoking as one of “the most stupid” things she has ever done, Coleman encourages smokers in Sevier County to reconsider.
“Stop and think about it – is it worth your lungs? Is it worth your life?” she asks. Then she answers her own questions emphatically. “Cigarettes are not worth it.”
To schedule an appointment with a pulmonologist, visit LeConte Pulmonary, a Covenant Medical Group practice, or talk to your doctor about having a lung cancer screening at LeConte Medical Center, Sevier County’s only designated lung screening facility.