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Veterans Health Administration


Vets Can Breathe Again with VA Pulmonary Rehabilitation

A woman assists a man on an exercise machine

Army Veteran William Pfaff uses an elliptical trainer during a Pulmonary Rehabilitation session directed by Registered Respiratory Therapist Patricia Jefferson.

What is Pulmonary Rehabilitation?

Pulmonary Rehabilitation is comprehensive intervention for patients with chronic respiratory diseases and decreased daily activities.

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) make up the majority of patients who are referred to Pulmonary Rehabilitation programs.

Studies also show that pulmonary rehabilitation may be beneficial in any patient with respiratory symptoms that result in diminished functional capacity or decreased quality of life. This would include patients with not only obstructive lung diseases but also patients with restrictive lung disease such as interstitial lung disease and patients with neuromuscular diseases.

Pulmonary rehabilitation is tailored to meet the patient’s individual needs and goals.

The benefits of Pulmonary Rehabilitation include:

  • Reduced respiratory symptoms such as dyspnea and fatigue
  • Increased muscle strength and endurance
  • Increased knowledge about lung disease and management
  • Increased ability to perform tasks of daily living
  • Increased quality of life
  • Decreased depression and anxiety
  • Ability to return to work or leisure activities

March 13-19 is National Pulmonary Rehabilitation Week

Normally, you are not even aware of your breathing.

But then you begin experiencing shortness of breath with activities that you normally could perform without any interference.

You may have begun getting more colds over the course of the last year.

Your exercise program is nonexistent and maybe you’ve had more phlegm production and more tightness in your chest.

All these symptoms could mean you are suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

Emphysema and bronchitis are slow and insidious disease processes which can begin many years in the past and cause symptoms later.

I’ve lost 32 pounds, and I can breathe again. It really makes you want to get up in the morning. Veterans need this kind of positive program.

— William Pfaff, Army Veteran

The goal of Pulmonary Rehabilitation Week is to highlight the education and treatment of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

Veterans Health Administration staff involved with pulmonary rehabilitation programs throughout the United States are dedicated to helping Veterans learn about preventing lung disease. They also educate Veterans and their families about how to have a better life when they have been diagnosed with emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, or other lung problems.

“I can breathe again.”

Nine months ago, William Pfaff needed oxygen to get through his day. Just climbing a flight of stairs left him out of breath.

“Now, I park on the 7th floor and take the stairs up to the clinic,” Pfaff said, stepping onto an elliptical trainer in the New Orleans 9G rehabilitation facility.

Pfaff, an Army Veteran who served between 1966 and 1968, participates in Pulmonary Rehabilitation (PR), a Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System program.

“I come twice a week and work on getting stronger and breathing better,” Pfaff said.

“There aren’t many programs like this anywhere in VA,” said Nathan Dion, registered respiratory therapist and pulmonary supervisor.

A 36-week multi-disciplinary program, PR is designed to improve the endurance, lung capacity and general quality of life for patients suffering from chronic pulmonary diseases.

Patients with decreased breathing function can be referred for evaluation by their primary care provider.

“Although our efforts are often focused on patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, patients with asthma, reduced lung volume or cancer can benefit,” Dion said.

As part of his rehabilitation, Pfaff works with Respiratory Therapist Patricia Jefferson, who teaches him controlled breathing techniques, and monitors his heart rate and oxygen levels during exercise periods.

“We work on getting him the skills he needs to manage his respiratory health even after he leaves the program,” Jefferson said.

“The focus on wellness and health self-management is critical to improving quality of life for Veterans as well as in reducing health care expenditures,” Dion noted. “Dollar-for-dollar it is more cost-effective to keep patients healthy than to try to make them better once they have fallen ill.”

“We really need this,” said Pfaff. “I’ve lost 32 pounds, and I can breathe again. It really makes you want to get up in the morning. Veterans need this kind of positive program.”