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Olympian warns against lung disease

February 2012

Olympic gold medalist Sylvie Fréchette had never heard of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder until five years ago, when her mother-in-law was diagnosed with the disease.

Early on, Fréchette, 44, who won gold in synchronized swimming at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, warned Mimi Van Strydonck not to smoke around her or the children she planned to have with her then-fiancé, Pascal Van Strydonck.

She stopped, but her cough persisted.

“Her skin was grey, she had no energy and was always out of breath,” Fréchette, mother of two girls, said from her home in St. Sauveur.

At first her mother-in-law was found to have sleep apnea—pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while asleep—but even breathing with the help of a machine at night did not help her deteriorating condition.

She was then diagnosed with COPD, was prescribed medication and began using a respirator. With supreme effort, after five years, she was able to use the stairs at Fréchette’s two-storey home to tuck in her granddaughters Emma and Maya.

Fréchette’s message, on behalf of the Quebec Lung Association, about COPD: “Please stop smoking. And if you are out of breath, consult a doctor. If you have this disease and don’t take it seriously, your condition will degrade really quickly. Your whole body will be taxed by this condition.”

The damage to the lungs for someone who has COPD is irreversible, noted Dr. Gaston Ostiguy, specialist in respiratory medication and director of the McGill University Hospital Centre’s smoking-cessation clinic. After stopping smoking, it is important to relearn how to breathe and to exercise to help reduce shortness of breath.

“Very often, people suffering from COPD are depressed, and this has to be addressed as well,” Ostiguy said. “Proper medication, including anti-inflammatories, rehabilitation and paying attention to depression reduce considerably the morbidity of this illness.”

In contrast with cardiac patients, who can be treated and released within five days, those with COPD will stay in the hospital for about 10 days, which costs about $10,000—an enormous cost to society, when you consider they often require hospitalization twice a year, he said.

Readers who cough persistently, are short of breath or have other symptoms should consult their physician.



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