Cigarettes, COPD and the Loss of So Much: A Conversation With DPH's Gavert Smith

December 13, 2013

Originally published Aug. 15, 2011


Six years ago, Gavert Smith suffered from a bad cold. She recalls lighting a cigarette, taking a puff and coughing uncontrollably. Then came the severe back pain every time she coughed. She made a promise to herself that if she lived through the pain that she would never put another cigarette in her mouth.

Two days later, she knew something was seriously wrong and she visited her doctor for testing. Shortness of breath had doctors suspecting a heart attack. They checked her stress levels on the treadmill but she could not handle the movement and inclines. They gave her oxygen so she could breathe. The chest x-ray held the clues to her medical condition. The following Monday, the doctor told her she had a serious lung disease caused by years of smoking and there was no cure. She had COPD.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. COPD includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma.

Sometimes Gavert says she feels like an elephant is sitting on her chest right before she takes her medications.

PHWEEK first learned about her medical condition after a video conferencing statewide meeting for employees on Friday, July 29, 2011 hosted by Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., Commissioner of the Department of Public Health. Dr. Fitzgerald announced tobacco cessation as a top priority in Georgia and Gavert decided she wanted to help others quit for good.

When PHWEEK sat down with her last week, Gavert displayed two inhalers which are used to clear her lungs. “Because of the damage to my lungs from years of cigarette smoking, my inhalers are always within reach.”

She regrets now the consequences of lighting up a cigarette in her early teens and inhaling the poisonous toxins into her lungs -- for three decades. She wipes away the tears as she explains how she told her son and grandchildren about her COPD.

Gavert grew up watching her mother smoke. Her mother once chastised her for taking her cigarettes. “She told me that when I can buy my own cigarettes, then I can smoke.” These words resonate with Gavert as she looks back on why she ever picked up a cigarette.

“I smoked my mother’s cigarettes. I eventually got a job and could buy my own.” 
Today, Gavert is modeling a different behavior and healthier message for her son and grandchildren. “They know that I have an illness and they are concerned,” said Gavert. “They tell me all the time that they are praying that I get new lungs.”

She gets emotional reflecting on her own life and knowing that her lungs are not getting any better. She told PHWEEK that COPD is limiting her physical movement. “I can take short walks. I can read to my grandchildren. I can enjoy the movies with them. But I cannot run, play or ride a bike with them. I spend more time watching my grandchildren in the more vigorous activities.”

Although Gavert grew up in a different generation of teen smokers, the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that each day in the United States, approximately 3,450 young people between 12 and 17 years of age smoke their first cigarette, and an estimated 850 youth become daily cigarette smokers.

Gavert has worked in state government since the mid 80s. “We could smoke at our desks up until we moved to 2 Peachtree Street,” recalls Gavert. “Then they eventually changed the policy that we could not smoke in the building.”

She’s on a different mission now. “For everyone who smokes, please stop. It’s painful. It’s depressing. I can’t say it enough. Stop smoking and get help.”

The Georgia Tobacco Quit Line is available to assist you or loved ones in quitting today. The Georgia Tobacco Quit Line is 877-270-STOP (7867) and is a toll-free resource where callers get connected to a trained counselor who can help them develop a personal plan to stop smoking. The Georgia Tobacco Quit Line is available to anyone in Georgia 13 years of age or older. It is also available to the parents of youth who use tobacco products. Trained counselors staff the Quit Line and offer individual counseling tailored to the caller's needs ranging from moderate to more intensive follow-up, written self-help materials and referral to other resources.

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