Nearly 16 million people in the United States have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious lung disease that makes breathing difficult.
COPD, also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, develops slowly and can get worse over time. Many people with COPD avoid activities they used to enjoy because they get out of breath easily. When COPD becomes severe, it can prevent even the most basic tasks, such as light housework, walking, bathing, and dressing.
Three years ago, Dr. Omar Ibrahim, director of interventional pulmonology at UConn Health, was the first in Connecticut to perform an endobronchial valve procedure and completed the procedure on more eligible patients than anyone else in the state. Two of his grateful patients share how these flaps, which they consider a miracle, have changed their lives.
The endobronchial valve procedure is a minimally invasive treatment option that requires no cutting or incisions. Small flaps are placed in a targeted area of the diseased lung where air is trapped. Trapped air causes shortness of breath. The one-way valve allows trapped air to be released, resulting in easier breathing for patients and less shortness of breath. The valve is designed to block off a diseased part of the lungs, which reduces hyperinflation. This allows the healthier parts of the lungs to expand, which can make breathing easier.
The endobronchial valve is recommended in adults with severe COPD emphysema who have reduced lung function and dyspnea. The valve can help improve lung function and quality of life.
Over ten years ago, Peter Cowley was diagnosed with COPD emphysema, having been a smoker for over 50 years.
Living with COPD emphysema was difficult, Cowley struggled with many of the daily activities that people take for granted, including speaking for long periods of time. He was following protocols with medication and a rescue inhaler. He slept on oxygen and had to use oxygen whenever his breathing became shallow when he exerted himself. At the time, he thought it was his only chance to control his disease.
A family member in Albany, New York saw a story on television about a man who had an endobronchial valve procedure for COPD and improved his quality of life. Cowley immediately began researching the procedure, called Medicare to make sure it was covered, and discussed it with her primary care physician, Dr. James Stewart. After some further research from Stuart, they both decided it was a good option to explore.
“I live in Rhode Island and didn’t want to go into town to have the procedure done, so I was thrilled when Dr. Stewart’s office found Dr. Ibrahim at UConn Health,” says Cowley.
“When I first spoke to Dr. Ibrahim, I don’t think he was optimistic that it would work for me, but he said he wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt and agreed to meet with me,” says Cowley. .
“I didn’t think he was the best candidate for this procedure because of some borderline heart problems, I knew he would be fine with the procedure but I was worried he wouldn’t be able to do the aftercare but he was persistent and he pulled through so good that he wanted to go back and do the other lung,” Ibrahim says.
Ibrahim had him undergo a series of tests and begin pulmonary rehabilitation to prepare him for the procedure.
“One of the requirements is to do pulmonary rehab before the procedure, so if you can’t do pulmonary rehab, you’re probably not a candidate,” Ibrahim says.
Cowley underwent a series of tests, including X-rays and a CT scan, as well as a visit to the nuclear medicine department at UConn Health to determine if there were cracks in his lungs. He was ready to perform the procedure, and along came COVID-19, which put the planned surgeries on hold.
Last year he was finally able to have the procedure done and the valves were placed in his left lung, he spent three days in the hospital for a check-up, which is part of the protocol, before being released home.
Since having the flaps, Cowley and his wife, Carol, have seen a huge improvement. He goes to the gym three days a week early in the morning to walk on a treadmill, and the rest of the days he rides a recumbent bike. He is stronger and has more energy, which makes him plan and cook all their meals.
“When I saw my cardiologist after the procedure, he said the test showed I was 5 to 6 years younger,” Cowley says. “If I can say I have a minimum of five years of added quality of life, that’s a pretty big benefit.”
Although the valves do not change the progression of the disease, they help him breathe better, improving his quality of life. He still takes his prescribed medicine and uses his oxygen when he needs it, but finds he doesn’t need it as much.
“Now I can leave the house and not even pick up my mobile phone anymore because I feel so confident in his progress, he’s come a long way,” says Peter’s wife Carol Cowley. “It also helps that he has a positive attitude.”
Peter celebrates his 79th birthday this November and bought a new car. “I’m starting my 8th decade with a new car, it’s kind of a hotrod, all tricked out and has a strong engine, I wouldn’t be where I am without Dr. Ibrahim, I’m really grateful for everything he’s done,” says Cowley . “I’m also so grateful to my wife, Carol, and my son, Pete, for being there to support me through this.”
“Dr. Ibrahim and his staff are phenomenal, every person I’ve met at UConn Health has been excellent,” says Cowley. “You have to advocate for yourself and it makes a big difference in your health care, saying I want to try this and I’m grateful that Dr. Ibrahim took a chance on me.”
Heather Butt learned about the flap procedure from a Facebook post by another UConn Health patient who had the procedure and suggested it. She was also a long-time smoker but quit in 1996. Then, with the emotional toll of her mother’s death in 2004, she started smoking again. She noticed a change in her breathing in 2011 and her doctor discovered her aortic aneurysm and COPD, leading to open heart surgery and quitting smoking again, this time for good.
Over the past three years, her COPD continued to worsen to the point where she could not take two steps without being able to breathe. She made more than 70 trips to the hospital between March and December last year because it felt like a python was twisting into her diaphragm and she couldn’t breathe, even though her oxygen levels were fine.
Her primary care provider sent a referral to Ibrahim to see if she was a candidate for the endobronchial valve procedure. As with any procedure, Butt was concerned and suspicious that it would work, but Dr. Ibrahim took the time to explain it to her and put her at ease.
Butt had four valves placed in her right lung and says: “It’s a miracle, I feel like a new person, it’s amazing that something so small can do something so dramatic.”
I went from being disabled to housework, folding laundry and walking the dog with my husband.
“I’m so grateful to Dr. Ibrahim and his team, I love UConn, it’s a beautiful hospital, and this procedure was a blessing and a miracle,” says Butt. “I also couldn’t have done it without my husband, Tommy, and my sons, Eric and RJ, who were there for me last year and I know it was tough for them.”
For more information about the endobronchial valve procedure, call 860-679-8300 and ask to speak to Noreen Allsop RN.