Open Accessibility Menu

Every Breath You Take

Every Breath You Take

Better Breathing group serves patients, loved ones

Karen Ezell still chuckles over the way in which Better Breathers, a program of the American Lung Association, came into being. A longtime health advocate in Mountain Home, she was approached by a woman who’d recently relocated here, asking about organizing and leading such a group.

“A lady who had moved here from Beaver City told me they had a Better Breathers group where she came from,” Ezell said. “We talked about it, and I told her, ‘If you can get five people who are willing to commit to join, I’ll make the time.’”

A meeting was scheduled, and the response was such that Better Breathers held its first meeting in February 1997. Offered free of charge then and now, the Mountain Home gathering would in time earn the distinction of being the longest running such group in Arkansas.

“The group is for adults with any kind of lung disease, the most common, of course, is COPD,” said Ezell who is the coordinator for Sleep Disorder Center Neurodiagnostic Pulmonary Rehab and DME for Baxter Health. “We have speakers come in from different groups or different manufacturers of equipment that people would use with breathing problems. Sometimes I do a gadget meeting where we have inhalers or breathing assist devices, and I’ll demonstrate the correct use of it.

“I also typically include a talk on COPD and sleep apnea, what’s called a comorbid condition. People who have this condition have more complicated treatment and so I make them aware of the signs and symptoms and ways to get a better night’s sleep. It’s really hard for people to lay down when they can’t breathe.”

As a registered respiratory therapist for 42 years, Ezell’s instinct for topics and speakers was spot-on, as evidenced by attendance. The meetings would grow to attract 15 to 20 per outing as people came for the knowledge and stayed for the fellowship and support of others facing the same challenges themselves or with their loved ones.

“Once the patient has had a diagnosis, they go to their pharmacy to get their medications and stuff to treat their condition. Oftentimes, it’s a lot; it’s overwhelming,” Ezell said. “It’s a big diagnosis, and it’s scary.”

Part of the group’s popularity lies with where the meetings are held, always the second Friday of the month, at the Mruk Family Center on Aging. The center is a resource well-known to the area’s seniors. In addition to Better Breathers, the center hosts a variety of informational talks and is a trusted source of information on various aspects of life and health that come with getting older.

Diahanne VanGulick, the center coordinator, said the Better Breathers group fit right into the center’s roster of programming and informational sessions which range from dementia and Parkinson’s to arthritis and home safety, to name a few.

“The target audience for this are people with what we call chronic lung disease,” she said. “This would be asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, things like that. It affects people’s quality of living every day. The goal is to raise support and awareness so they can know what their resources are, what the medication treatments are, where to get their medical devices like oxygen and things like that.“

It also gives them a place to come once a month to meet with Karen and hopefully it’s keeping them out of the hospital. When they come, they get to talk her as a health care professional who is very experienced, and it may catch things a little early. Karen may say hey, you need to go to the doctor for that and they go to the doctor early enough that maybe it keeps them from having issues that take them to the hospital. There’s that value also.”

VanGulick said the group is also an important support community for families dealing with lung disease.

“It’s a very strong support system they have for each other,” she said. “They stay in touch with each other, check on each other. We see so much value and help in the support system.”

The only thing that interrupted the group, ironically, was a respiratory virus – COVID-19 – that shut down meetings and kept people away until recently. Even now, fear of the lingering threat of contracting the disease continues to take its toll.

“COVID just kind of wiped everything out,” VanGulick said. “This particular group of people tends toward isolation because of their disease, and as you can imagine with COVID, because of the nature of it, they’re at higher risk for a severe case.

“They’ve isolated, and it’s been challenging bringing them back out. We were probably averaging, before COVID, 15 people and their spouses or family care partners. Now it’s more like four or five.”

Still, five people is enough to make Ezell stick to the bargain she struck so long ago that brought the group together to begin with. And so, she’s still here like clockwork, ready to impart knowledge or lend a friendly face to a family who needs it.

“I always try to give the best information to them in a different kind of environment where they’re not trying to absorb so much information all at once,” she said. “The only time we’ve ever missed was through COVID. We missed several months, but other than that we’ve been faithful.”

Photography by James Moore