Mary Chetkovich: Pulmonary Rehabilitation

“I couldn’t do a thing or go anywhere without it (oxygen tank)."

Mary Chetkovich

If not for a runaway rescue dog, Hillsdale resident Mary Chetkovich might still be using an oxygen tank to compensate for her emphysema and COPD. Mary, a volunteer for Cascades Humane Society, brings rescue dogs to the Green Market* at Henry Ford Allegiance Health every Thursday from May to October, in hopes of finding homes for them.

On a particularly windy Market day a few summers ago, all the vendors struggled to keep their tents from blowing away. When the Cascades Humane Society tent went down, a little Yorkie-mix dog escaped. Mary ran desperately to catch the Yorkie—with another dog in her arms and an oxygen tank on her back. Once the Yorkie was captured, Mary went down on one knee, gasping for breath.

“Suddenly, I felt a hand on my back,” Mary recalls. “Fortunately, it was Sue Bullinger and Michael Snyder, respiratory therapists with Henry Ford Allegiance Health.  They had been on their lunch break when they saw me running and had followed me to make sure I was okay.” Sue helped Mary to slow her breathing by repeatedly pretending to “Smell the roses. Blow out the fire. Smell the roses …” Once Mary’s breath returned to normal, Sue told her about the hospital’s Pulmonary Rehab program. Mary had already heard about the program through a friend from the Humane Society, but she was skeptical.

“I’d been dealing with breathing problems for a long time and had accepted the oxygen tank as part of life. Besides volunteering for the Humane Society, I live on a farm and lift 40-pound hay bales to feed my horses. I was managing okay, and I didn’t believe a Rehab program would change anything.”Mary Chetkovich: Pulmonary rehabilitation patient

She continued to live with her oxygen tank for more than a year. “I couldn’t do a thing or go anywhere without it,” she admits.

One day, her Cascades friend reminded Mary about the remarkable success her husband was having with Pulmonary Rehab. “She kept talking about the program and how great Sue and the other team members were. I remembered how Sue had helped me before. So, reluctantly, I decided to give it a try,” Mary recalls. “Now, I can’t believe I waited so long.”

During the 12-week program, Mary learned to slow down and breathe properly. “It takes concentration at first, but now it’s second nature to me,” she says. She also gradually built strength and stamina through monitored exercise—beginning with simple stretches for chest expansion and moving to a treadmill.  From registered dietitian Elizabeth Gorney, Mary learned how to eat healthier. That led her to a significant weight loss, which further improved her breathing. While Mary’s original goal was to reduce her dependence on supplemental oxygen, she has progressed to the point where she doesn’t need it at all.

Mary now tends her horses and volunteers at the Humane Society without an oxygen tank on her back. She keeps the tank in the trunk of her car when she’s planning to be gone all day. “But I never even take it out. It’s very freeing,” she says.  Mary still uses the tank at night, “but only to feel more secure while I’m sleeping.  I’m going to ask my doctor about giving that up too,” she says.

Mary is extremely grateful to Sue Bullinger (now retired) and the other members of the Henry Ford Allegiance Pulmonary Rehabilitation team who worked with her, including April Allen, Erin Wetherby and Michael Snyder. “They changed my life,” she says.

* Every week, the Green Market at Henry Ford Allegiance Health brings staff and community members fresh, locally grown produce as well as locally made cheese, specialty foods, bakery goods, jewelry and gift items.

Severe chest pain is not always present with a heart attack, especially for older adults, people with diabetes and women. They may experience sudden shortness of breath, coughing, dizziness, fatigue or weakness. Don’t take a chance. Call 9-1-1.