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Northside Hospital-Forsyth holds annual ‘Breathe Better’ event
Northside Hospital breathe
Attendees browse information booths Thursday at Northside Hospital-Forsyth’s Breathe Better Forsyth event. - photo by Isabel Hughes

The pig lungs on display at the hospital, blackened from simulated cigarette inhalation, struggled to inflate as Middle Georgia State University respiratory student Kaitlin Watley pushed the pedal that provided air.

A jar of tar next to the organs showed the amount of carcinogens that build up after smoking one pack of cigarettes daily for a year. By contrast, a pair of healthy pig lungs — pink, as the organs should be — inflated easily Thursday at Northside Hospital-Forsyth’s Breathe Better Forsyth event.

Now in its second year, the event brought dozens of residents to the hospital for free lung screening and provided them interactive booths to learn more about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory and other lung diseases that affect both young and old adults.

“As people start to age, they blame being short of breath and being tired on aging or arthritis or other reasons,” said Dana Hickman, family nurse practitioner specialist at Northside. 

“By the time we see them with COPD, they’re at end-stage COPD,” Hickman said. “The 30-year-old who’s still smoking who’s not getting lung function testing — we’ve missed the opportunity to catch it early so they can modify their lifestyle … We want to raise awareness of lung health.”

Hickman added that doctors and nurses alike are also concerned with vaping and e-cigarettes that have become increasingly popular among teens and young adults.

“We’re really worried about e-cigarettes and hookah bars and their impact on your lungs,” she said. “There are so many chemicals, preservatives and things of flavoring in there that it’s just crazy. Also, I think people think about cardiac health but they don’t think of lung health so they don’t try to avoid irritants to their lungs because they don’t realize how detrimental it can be to their future health.”

Dr. Daniel Callahan, a local pulmonologist, added while he has had patients who have successfully used e-cigarettes to quit traditional cigarette smoking, he will “never, ever, ever endorse” anyone smoking anything.

“The fact of the matter is, we don’t absolutely know the potential long-term effects or the potential pathogens of those [smoking methods],” he said. “It could be a precursor, just as cigarette smoking is, to lead to potentially lung cancer. We have a patient who smoked only marijuana, and he ended up with lung cancer and fortunately we caught it early, but he never smoked anything else but marijuana, and it’s just [that] he just smoked very heavily, which can lead to various diseases.”

Events like Thursday’s are intended to increase awareness and have already paid off, at least for one Forsyth County resident.

“A couple of months before [Northside’s] first Breathe Better Forsyth [last year,] they had a lung cancer screening here,” said Kathleen Estes, a local resident. “I came to that because I know I have COPD and they did X-rays and all like they would for a lung cancer screening, so bingo, I don’t have lung cancer. A few months later they did the Breathe Better Forsyth and I came for that because I was having a little trouble breathing and they referred me for pulmonary rehab.”

After seeing a pulmonologist, Estes said she was told she needed surgery.

“The doctor looked over my records and X-rays and he says, ‘no wonder you’re having a problem [breathing,] it looks like your stomach has gotten up into your chest and is resting on your lung,’” she said. “I then had to do an endoscopy … had it not been for Breathe Better Forsyth, I wouldn’t have known.”