Facing up to life with a killer disease

STRUGGLING: Denham Thomas with daughter Sadie and partner Debbie
STRUGGLING: Denham Thomas with daughter Sadie and partner Debbie

A HARTLEPOOL family have been chosen to front a health awareness campaign all about a killer illness.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has devastated the life of town man Denham Thomas.

But a new campaign from the anti-smoke group FRESH is taking a different look at COPD by looking at it through the victim’s relatives.

Denham, 60, was first diagnosed with COPD 16 years ago, and ever since, his partner Debbie Myles, 47, has been his carer and speaks candidly about the changing effect it has had on both their lives.

”At the time, he was still a physically active man and was able to go work as normal. But he’d just have to do things that little bit slower because he would get out of breath really quickly.

“Since then though, his health has really deteriorated. It’s been heartbreaking to watch him get worse over the years.”

Denham blames smoking on his current condition.

“He gets really depressed sometimes and I can see in his eyes how angry he is with what smoking has done to him,” said Debbie.

“Nothing can prepare you for how frightening it is to see someone close to you struggling to breathe.

“It’s such an awful experience because while he’s gasping for every breath and his lips are going blue, all I can do is watch because if try to help it only makes the situation worse.”

There’s another victim in the whole story, says Debbie.

“The person I feel really upset for is our daughter Sadie, who’s only known her dad with COPD.

“She’s 13 and a proper daddy’s girl. She does a lot of boxing and would love to be able to go out and train with her dad, but even though you can see how desperate he is to just have one day of exercise with her, it’s never going to happen which is so upsetting.

“We’ve talked about the future with Denham not being there anymore. We’ve cried a lot and got really angry with what COPD has done to our lives. But as upsetting as it is thinking about what might happen that’s the reality of COPD which is why we have to take every day as it comes.

Denham quit smoking at 40 after suffering from “really bad exhaustion and breathlessness” in his late 30s.

“Keeping fit was such a massive part of my life so having to give up at an early age because I couldn’t breathe properly made me feel really sad,” he said.

“I was also forced to give up my job as a pub landlord because I wasn’t able to carry out work duties like lifting things around or walking up the stairs.”

Now, even walking through the front door is a battle.

“Any form of physical activity leaves me gasping for air which is a terrifying feeling. It’s like having a plastic bag being pulled tighter and tighter over your head and the more you panic the more you can’t breathe.”

His biggest wish, he said, was to help Sadie train in the sport she loves.

“Being unable to do this makes me feel really emotional and I regret what smoking has done to me.

“I have four sons who also all smoke and I have pleaded and begged them to quit. I don’t want them to get to my age and be in the same position as me because of not quitting smoking when they had the chance. I have learned to cope with the effects of COPD, but wouldn’t want anybody else to have to.

“I’m really glad FRESH is spreading the word about COPD and the effects of it. I hope it encourages more people to quit smoking.”