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Health lung transplant

Karen Rydstrom, 53, talks during an interview at her North Sioux City home. Rydstrom, a former smoker, has only 26 percent function in both lungs and is on a waiting list for a double lung transplant.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal

NORTH SIOUX CITY -- Karen Rydstrom doesn't bake cookies, cakes and breads as often as she used to. 

The 53-year-old North Sioux City woman can't play outside with her 13 grandchildren.

Cleaning her apartment and even walking from her front door to her car is a struggle. 

"I can't do hardly any of the stuff I used to do before. It just takes everything I got. Even just talking, it shortens my breath," said Rydstrom, who was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2016 and is on disability as a result. COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Breathing difficulty, coughing and wheezing are symptoms.

In the vast majority of cases, the lung damage that leads to COPD is caused by long-term cigarette smoking, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Rydstrom started smoking at age 16. She recalls the warning labels on packs of cigarettes, but she said she didn't really pay attention to them. After decades of smoking, she wishes she would have. Since last July, Rydstrom has been on a transplant waiting list for donor lungs.

"Everything is good except for my lungs," she said over the hum and hiss of an oxygen concentrator as she sat on a sofa in her living room. "I pray every day just to get that call."

Initially, Rydstrom thought her breathing issues were related to the work she did unloading trucks and carrying merchandise. But as the years went by, her symptoms only got worse. She was frequently diagnosed with bronchitis and prescribed antibiotics. In April 2008, Rydstrom thought she was having a heart attack. She was hospitalized and told she was likely developing emphysema. 

The day she was discharged from the hospital, Rydstrom said she smoked half a cigarette and then quit cold turkey. 

"That was it for me. I was done," she said.

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Health lung transplant

Karen Rydstrom, 53, adjusts her oxygen tubing during an interview at her North Sioux City home. Rydstrom was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2016 and is on disability as a result.

In the spring of 2016, Rydstrom was hospitalized again. Her family doctor referred her to a pulmonologist for testing and she was diagnosed with COPD. There is no cure for COPD. When inhalers, corticosteroids and oxygen therapy can no longer alleviate symptoms of the disease, a lung transplant may be recommended. Rydstrom inquired about a having a double lung transplant and was referred to the University of Minnesota Health lung transplant program. 

Rydstrom learned in Minneapolis that she had just 26 percent function between both of her lungs. About every three months, she travels there with her boyfriend of 18 years, Victor Hoffman, to undergo a battery of tests to see if her lung function has worsened. Rydstrom said Hoffman has been her "rock."

This week, she'll make the trip again to Minneapolis to walk for six minutes and breathe into a tube inside a glass chamber with a clothespin-like device on her nose.

"It's just like they suck all the air out of the chamber; and then I have to take breaths. It's hard to do," she said.

Being outside in the wintertime and around people who are smoking or wearing fragrances is hard on Rydstrom's lungs too. These situations trigger coughing fits. Once she starts coughing, Rydstrom can't stop; and she can't breathe.

"She's declined a lot. Now, she can't take smoke at all, so we can't go anywhere hardly," Hoffman said. "She's got that (oxygen) tank in her hand all the time, so she's one-handed."

Every time she answers her phone, Rydstrom hopes to hear that a pair of donor lungs are available for her. After receiving such a call, she said she could have anywhere from 1 to 12 hours to get to Minneapolis. If she has to be there in less than four hours, she said an air ambulance will pick her up at an airfield just north of her apartment complex.

"Stop smoking," Rydstrom urges smokers. "If you don't want to go through what I'm going through, you should quit now."

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Health and Lifestyles reporter

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