Brian, age 63, grew up in Chicago. Both of his parents smoked. Brian started smoking at a young age, and by the time he was in eighth grade, he was smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. “My parents found out that I was smoking when I was 12, but that didn’t stop me,” he said.
At age 19, Brian joined the Air Force and was assigned to work at an Air Force base in California. He soon fell in love and married his sweetheart, a girlfriend he had previously dated. Brian had many responsibilities as a master sergeant in the Air Force. As a result, he struggled with job stress and often smoked cigarettes to cope.
One morning, while stationed in England, Brian had chest pains while walking at work. He was out of breath and sweating, and the pain became intense and worsened. Suddenly, he collapsed. Brian was having a heart attack at age 35. The next day, he had an angioplasty—a procedure in which a surgeon uses a balloon-like device to open up a blocked blood vessel. Brian slowly regained his strength but kept smoking. “The moment I walked out of the hospital, I started sneaking cigarettes again,” he said.
While on leave after his heart attack, Brian had more chest pains. He was admitted to an Air Force hospital in San Antonio, where he was diagnosed with a serious arrhythmia—an irregular heartbeat that can be life threatening. Brian underwent surgery to have a defibrillator put in his chest. A defibrillator is a device that helps regulate abnormal heartbeats.
During the next several years, Brian needed more heart surgeries. Eventually, his doctor told him that his heart was so damaged that he would need a heart transplant. This would be the beginning of a long and difficult journey for Brian and his family. Brian understood that not everybody who needs a transplant is able to get one, but he hoped that he would be one of the lucky ones.
Several months later, Brian’s name was added to a national heart transplant waiting list. He and his family were thrilled. But that feeling didn’t last long. One evening, Brian’s doctor called with some bad news. Brian’s name had been removed from the transplant list. The reason? Brian’s lab results showed that he still smoked. “It was caught in a routine blood test for nicotine exposure,” he said. Brian was devastated.
Brian had run out of treatment options, and his health was getting worse. He was determined to quit smoking so that he could have a chance to live. In the spring of 2009, Brian joined a smoking cessation class in a military hospital. “I did everything they told me to do, and I never looked back,” he said. Because he remained smokefree, he eventually was put back on the list for a heart transplant.
In 2012, Brian received a long-awaited heart transplant. The transplant gave him new hope, but he understood the seriousness of the surgery. “They told me that a heart transplant is not a cure. I have a weakened immune system, so I can’t attend events where there are lots of people and little kids,” he said. Brian’s heart transplant, a healthier lifestyle, and quitting cigarettes for good gave him a new outlook on life.
While Brian remained smokefree, the damage caused by years of smoking continued to affect his body. In 2017, at age 63, Brian was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had surgery to remove part of his lung.
Now living in Texas, Brian is glad he quit smoking for good. “Every day is a gift to spend time with my wife and grandkids. If I’m around after everything I’ve been through, other people can have hope too.”