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20th November 2018

Meet the “COPD Athlete”

You don’t usually come across a triathlete with severe lung disease, but Russell Winwood is great at busting stereotypes.

The Australian blogger has come a long way since being diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2011, which left him devastated. “Being told I had only 22% lung function and would likely need a double lung transplant within five years hit me hard. I had never heard of COPD, so it was all very daunting,” he tells This Is MedTech. “In the early stages I fell into depression as I was only 44 years old and my prognosis wasn’t good. Fortunately, over time I came to realise that I could be so much more than my diagnosis.”

Russell believes that a combination of poorly managed asthma as a child, lifestyle choices (i.e., smoking, poor diet, inactivity) and years of chest infections led him to develop COPD, which is not one single disease, but an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and certain types of asthma. It’s characterised by increasing breathlessness due to inflammation in the lungs, damaged lung tissue and a narrowing of the airways.

Diagnosis is relatively simple – a non-invasive test called spirometry measures the amount and/or speed of air you can blow out in a single breath. The measurements are represented as Forced Expiratory Volume in the first second of breath (FEV1) and Forced Vital Capacity, the amount of air that you can exhale in the rest of the breath. With the right diagnosis and treatment, there are many things people can do to manage their COPD, breathe better and enjoy life. Russell is a testament to that: he regularly participates in triathlons, marathons and cycling events around the world, sharing it all on his inspirational blog, COPD Athlete.

He’s passionate about raising COPD awareness and teaching people how healthy lifestyle choices can make a huge difference. “‘Never let your disease define you!’ is the motto that I live by. Whatever our stage of disease we can improve our quality of life by changing our lifestyle and managing our disease properly,” he notes.

A self-proclaimed device junky, Russell says that medical devices play a huge role in how he manages his disease and how active he is. “I use a spirometer to measure my FEV1 several times a week, a portable oxygen concentrator when cycling and travelling by air, as well as an activity tracker, pulse oximeter and sleep monitor. Diet is a big part of how I manage my disease, so I measure my blood glucose and ketone levels several times a week as well,” he explains.

Russell says his doctors are “at a loss to explain how I can do the volumes of exercise I do as people with stage IV COPD are mostly housebound, confined to bed and need oxygen therapy”, but admits he also has bad days where simply brushing his teeth can leave him breathless.

The biggest daily challenges that Russell and others with COPD face? “Breathing! It really is. From the moment we wake up to when we go to bed every breath is a chore,” he says. “Second would be the stigma around COPD. I and many other patients have been told: ‘You were a smoker, you deserve it.’ Does this mean everyone who makes a poor lifestyle choice deserves a chronic disease? I wish we as a society could get past this mentality.”

It’s estimated that over 251 million people around the world are affected by COPD, which is expected to be the third leading cause of death by 2020. World COPD Day, organised by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, falls on 21st November this year with the theme “Never too early, never too late”. For more information, click here.