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‘My Goal Is to Live’

​​​​​​​Pulmonary rehab key to Pittsville man

Gary Skon, Pittsville, Wisconsin Gary Skon, Pittsville, Wisconsin

Gary Skon, 67, is quick to point out he didn’t listen to his doctors -- or his wife. He didn’t listen until 2008.

That’s when Skon, Pittsville, was hospitalized with pneumonia. It wasn’t the first time, either, but this time he was also diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. He had chronic bronchitis and severe emphysema with frequent flare-ups, which limited his ability to walk, breathe or be active.

Actually, smoking cigarettes caused the problem. Skon smoked for 55 years. His parents did, too, so it was easy to sneak cigarettes from them, which he started doing at age 8 or 9. He continued smoking as an adult, working in real estate and construction for 29 years.

“I tried everything,” his wife Katharine said to get him to quit. “I’m not a smoker and I could see what it was doing to him.” His personal physician, Renee Hoynacke, M.D.​, an internal medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic Marshfield Center, repeatedly encouraged him to quit, noting that he was more susceptible to bronchitis and other conditions. He was first hospitalized for pneumonia in his 30s.

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing are among the symptoms of this lung disease. Without treatment, it becomes progressively worse and is a leading cause of death.

When Skon was hospitalized in February 2008, Cardiologist John Hayes, M.D.​, fixed his irregular heart rhythm. Pulmonologist John Crump, M.D. showed him CT scan images of his lungs, which were full of large holes (bullae) because of severe emphysema.

“It was really a jaw dropper,” Katharine Skon said of the image. “We were very fortunate we brought you to the right place.”

Dr. Crump explained how the lungs affect the heart. He gave Skon two choices for his severe COPD: A lung transplant or lung volume reduction surgery. But first, Skon had to be tobacco-free for six months and complete a 12-week session of cardio-pulmonary rehabilitation, a supervised exercise program. He had already decided to quit smoking.

Skon could only exercise for 5 or 10 minutes when he started the rehab program in April 2008, and worked his way up to 15-20 minutes after a month. His progress was good enough that surgery was no longer needed.

Skon completed one rehab session, then another. He found the regimented program was good for him. The exercise sequence includes warm-up and cool-down stretches, endurance building on a stationary bike or treadmill and resistance equipment for strengthening. Respiratory therapists monitor exercises and check blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels after each exercise.

He has continued with the exercise program twice a week for nearly four years now at Ministry Saint Joseph’s Hospital, Marshfield. It has been good for him both physically and socially, as patients and staff have become friends.

“It’s so different than it used to be,” Skon said. He mows lawn, plows snow and does other property maintenance at home. He feels fortunate to fish in summer, hunt in fall and spend timewith his family. “I can do most everything, I just do it slower.”

Skon continues to take medication to regulate his heart rate, but at lower doses. He still chews Nicorette gum, but adds: “I have no desire to ever have a cigarette.”

“You have to be honest with yourself and accept what has happened and do everything you can to maintain and go forward,” Skon said. “My goal is to live. I like waking up.” ​​