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Freedom from Smoking class helps heart attack survivor commit to quit

The Great American Smokeout is Thursday, Nov. 16, and ex-smoker David Smith has a message for everyone who lights up: He was able to break free with the help of St. Mary’s Freedom from Smoking class. You can be free, too.

Freedom from Smoking with Todd Drake
David Smith, left, Freedom from Smoking graduate, with Todd Drake, RRT, facilitator & ex-smoker

David works as a finance director for Johnson and Johnson and is based in Athens. He started smoking when he was in his 30s. He doesn’t mince words about his decision to start.

“My dad was a big smoker. When he was 46 years old, we made a pact: he would quit and I would never start. Years later, when my previous wife decided she wanted to part ways, I decided it would be a good idea to have a cigarette. I really did think I could put them down. How stupid was that?”

For years David would buy one or two packs at a time because he always thought he would quit before he could go through a carton. He was addicted and couldn’t see how his addiction was dominating every waking hour.

“I didn’t think it was interfering with my life,” he says. “But now I look back and see all that time I wasted, sitting on my back porch all by myself, driving around in my car because we’re not allowed to smoke on campus, going in and out of stores. It’s pretty appalling. I started at age 33 or 34, thinking I could quit anytime I wanted to, and 24 years later, I was still smoking.”

He says he tried to quit a few times on his own, but each time surrendered to the cravings.

“It’s all about commitment,” he states. “You have to be committed, and I wasn’t.”

“The key to success is your readiness to change,” says Todd Drake, a respiratory therapist, ex-smoker, and St. Mary’s Freedom from Smoking instructor. “Events like the Great American Smokeout are great for raising awareness and helping people who smoke come to the point that they are ready to quit.”

For David, commitment started building in 2012 when he was rushed to St. Mary’s with a heart attack. To aid in his recovery, his doctor enrolled him in St. Mary’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, which is coordinated by Todd.

“Todd would come up and say, ‘It’s great that you’re so dedicated to exercise, but you know that you’ve got to quit smoking if you want to prevent a another heart attack or stroke’,” David says. “He was just matter-of-fact. If it had been high pressure, it wouldn’t have worked.”

David came to Todd’s next Freedom from Smoking class. But after the first session, he told Todd he wasn’t ready. “Todd said, ‘It’s OK. Think about it some more and try again.'”

David’s thinking got more serious in August 2016 when he found himself back in St. Mary’s cardiac rehab program after a coronary artery stent implantation. His second major heart procedure got him wondering: Was this his future – one health crisis after another, each one leaving him worse than before? Once again, he enrolled in Freedom from Smoking.

“Something Todd said clicked: It’s not that you’re going to die, it’s that you’re going to die horribly. You’re going to be struggling to breathe. You might have a stroke and be fully alert but unable to communicate with your family. And it might go on like that for years. I realized that’s not the way I want to live – or die.”

David was ready. He and Todd put together a quitting plan and David’s wife of 15 years, Lynn, committed to stay at home with him the first day. Fortunately, he didn’t have to travel for 4-5 weeks, so he didn’t have to face one of his prime triggers – long car trips – while he was most vulnerable.

It’s been a little more than a year since he completed St. Mary’s Freedom from Smoking class. “Every once in a while, I’ll pass someone smoking and get a whiff of smoke and think, ‘That smells good’. But once that switch went off in my head, it really hasn’t been hard to stay tobacco-free.

“Todd is a great motivator,” David concludes. “He’s an ex-smoker. He knows what you’re going through. He gently persuades until you make the decision for yourself. He’s a good guy.”

St. Mary’s next American Lung Association Freedom from Smoking class begins Jan. 2, 2018. For information, please call Todd Drake, RRT, at 706.389.2915. You can be tobacco free. St. Mary’s can help.

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