An estimated 40,000 Irish people live with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a progressive condition that can make the simplest tasks like walking upstairs impossible. Thanks to a supportive consultant, sufferer Yvonne Conroy found the right treatment and began living again
Since the onset of Covid-19, we are all more than aware of chest infections. But while we may have all experienced coughs and breathing issues of varying severity, it is estimated that at least 400,000 people in Ireland live with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) — and almost half of that figure have moderate or severe symptoms.
Yvonne Conroy, age 60, is one of the many people living with this debilitating condition after she was diagnosed with a progressive lung disease about 15 years ago. She describes herself as having been a “not heavy” smoker and had given up at age 40, five years before her diagnosis.
“I was constantly getting very bad chest infections, which would result in me coughing all the time, bringing up phlegm, feeling a bad tightness in my chest and always feeling unwell,” she says.
“My doctor would prescribe me with strong antibiotics and steroids which would help, but sometimes I would need a second course if it was a bad episode, or I would be hospitalised so they could give me antibiotics intravenously if the oral medicine wasn’t working.”
Yvonne, who has worked for most of her life as a hairdresser, says the pattern of becoming ill and recovering carried on for years with no end in sight. So her doctor arranged for a battery of tests. It was discovered that she had emphysema, and she was given medication to help her breathe more easily.
With this new diagnosis, Yvonne thought her problems would be minimised. But instead of improving, it seemed as though each infection was more severe than the last, and would last longer.
“I didn’t get too much of a fright (when first diagnosed) as I didn’t know anything about the illness,” she says. “But then I read up on it and discovered that it was a progressive lung disease — and I got a big shock. I was referred to a consultant who looked after me over the years and who would put me on different inhalers and medication to find the one which worked best.
“But I noticed that each time I got an infection, it was getting more severe and would last for weeks, really wiping me out and resulting in me going to hospital and being put on a drip for several days as the antibiotics, steroids, inhalers and nebulizers didn’t seem to be enough. Also, after each infection, I didn’t get back to the same level of wellness as I had before, so I knew the disease was progressing and that really scared me.”
In 2018, the Dublin woman suffered a very bad infection, which turned into pneumonia and resulted in her spending Christmas and New Year in hospital. Upon discharge, she was referred for further tests, which revealed some very distressing news.
“That episode (in hospital) upset me deeply as I thought that from now on, my life was going to revolve around me going into hospital all the time,” she says. “I went back to my consultant a few weeks later, and he organised a pulmonary breathing test along with some scans and X-rays.
“Following this, it was confirmed that I had stage 4 COPD and my lungs were in a very bad way. I got really upset as the news shook me to the core, and I went into a bit of depression because this illness was now robbing me of my life and my ability to do the most simple things that I once took for granted.
“I had always been very house-proud, but now, the simplest tasks, like hoovering, became so hard that after doing one room, I would have to sit down for a break — even walking up the stairs became so difficult I would be totally out of breath when I got to the top, which really made me panic as I had no control over my breathing.
“I came to the realisation that I was beginning to lose my independence. I even needed help to go shopping, and that made me really sad as I never had to rely on anyone for anything. This began to have an effect on my mental health and there were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed. Everything was such a huge effort, and I didn’t have any energy for anything.”
The mother-of-four says that just as she had begun to lose hope, she was referred to a specialist at the Mater Hospital who said she may be eligible for a life-changing procedure.
“I was feeling so bad and had lost the will to live — I even told my husband Kevin many times that I wished I would just die in my sleep,” she admits. “This really scared me, as I have a wonderfully supportive family and so much to live for, but it was just how I felt at the time. I wasn’t the type of person to feel sorry for myself and was always so upbeat and happy-go- lucky, but I was fed up with struggling every day. My body was tired and my state of mind wasn’t good.
“But just when I felt all hope was lost, my consultant referred me to Professor Karen Redmond in the Mater. I went to see her in her consultation room and after a long chat, I came out with hope in my heart that she could help me.
“She organised numerous scans and a variety of tests, and when she had gathered enough information on my condition, she told me that I was a good candidate for endobronchial valve surgery, which wasn’t too invasive. She explained that she would do one lung first, so I was admitted into hospital in March 2019 for the valves to be inserted into my lung. This went well but I didn’t feel much of a difference for a week or so — but I gradually noticed that I wasn’t struggling as much and I could walk a longer distance without gasping for breath.”
Over the course of the months that followed, Yvonne’s health improved even further and she began to feel hopeful. But it wasn’t long before things took a downward turn, and it was discovered that the procedure hadn’t worked as well as it was hoped — but there was another option.
“I was so delighted (after the valve insertion) as I was able to go for walks again — life was starting to look hopeful for me,” she says. “But unfortunately the valves started to give me trouble and I had to go back to hospital a few times to have them realigned and then replaced as they were not working to their full capacity.
“So when I was back with Professor Redmond, she said she would like to remove them and do lung volume reduction surgery, which was more invasive and involved cutting the damaged part off the top of my lungs. I was more than happy to have this done and in August 2020, I had robotic surgery on my left lung. Although I was in a lot of pain and on medication for the first few weeks and had two drains sewn into my lung for a week, I had to grin and bear it as they needed to be there to drain the lungs.
“When the drains came off and I was taken off the painkillers, I realised that I had a lot more energy and felt a whole lot better in myself. Then in June 2021, I had the second lung done, and I went through the whole process again before the drains were taken off — and then I was flying. The operation had given me back a life. Now I rarely get infections and haven’t been hospitalised in over two years, which is amazing.
“I am now independent again and can go out shopping and walking on my own. Cleaning my house is now a doddle for me, and I can even cut the grass without being severely breathless — it’s just brilliant.”
Since the final surgery last summer, Yvonne says she is now living life to the full and has a very positive outlook and approach to life. She would encourage others with the same condition not to lose hope and to know that there are options which can make life better.
“Having gone through this experience and come out the other end myself, I can say to others that there is hope. And I would advise them to stay strong and not to be afraid of having the operation if they are a candidate for it,” she says. “It changed my life for the better, and long may it last."
“Having gone through this experience and come out the other end myself, I can say to others that there is hope. And I would advise them to stay strong and not to be afraid of having the operation if they are a candidate for it,” she says. “It changed my life for the better, and long may it last.
“Of course, it has been a long journey with lots of worry and upset along the way. But I was blessed to have my wonderful family by my side, looking after me and supporting me throughout. I thank them from the bottom of my heart, as I know it wasn’t easy for them to be looking at someone they love going through an illness like mine.
“Hopefully I will be still here for many, many years to come as I won’t go down without a good fight and I’m full of optimism and positivity now. It is all thanks to the wonderful Professor Karen Redmond, who was so dedicated to me as her patient — for that, I’ll be eternally grateful. I strongly believe I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for her.”
⬤ COPD is a disease which makes it hard to empty air out of your lungs because the airways get smaller, leading to airflow obstruction. This can result in shortness of breath or tiredness because you are working harder to breathe.
⬤ COPD is a term used to include chronic bronchitis, emphysema or a combination of both conditions.
⬤ Chronic bronchitis is caused by inflammation and increased mucus (phlegm) in the breathing tubes (airways) and emphysema is caused by damage to the air sacs (alveoli) of the lung.
⬤ It is estimated that 380,000 people are living with COPD in Ireland, yet only 110,000 are diagnosed.
⬤ It is particularly prevalent in the more vulnerable in society, including people from areas with high social deprivation.
⬤ Most people with COPD are smokers or have smoked in the past.
⬤ Sometimes COPD is caused by working or living for many years in an environment where there is exposure to smoke, dust or other fumes.
⬤ COPD mostly affects those over the age of 35.
For more information about COPD, visit copd.ie and hse.ie