Larry Whitten has been legally blind almost his entire life. He can make out only the largest “E” on the eye chart. The 20/200 line.
But he clearly sees results from his dedication to pulmonary rehabilitation at Spectrum Health United Hospital.
Whitten, 57, suffers from pulmonary hypertension and severe COPD, also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“I was first diagnosed back in November of 2010 when I was experiencing shortness of breath big time,” Whitten said. “Both my parents smoked, and around the age of 14 I got curious. I started sneaking their cigarettes. By the time I was 16, I was buying my own and smoking a pack-plus per day. That escalated to two packs for the rest of my smoking life.”
His smoking life: 35 years.
It overlapped with his COPD life.
“I started using oxygen in January of that year but I kept smoking, which is a no-no,” the Greenville, Michigan, resident said.
Finally, he and his lungs had had enough.
“One day I set the cigarettes down and walked away and I never looked back,” Whitten said.
But did it come too late? Whitten’s health continued to decline. Eventually he couldn’t even walk without losing his breath. He started using a wheelchair.
He considered pursuing pulmonary treatment, but he figured it would be of little use given his deteriorating health.
Trekking for a transplant
Despite his reluctance, he agreed to start pulmonary rehabilitation in March 2016.
“I was ordered to participate because my doctor wanted to try to get me healthy enough to get me on the lung transplant list,” Whitten said.
Shortly after starting rehab, his lung problems flared. He developed pneumonia. For the seventh time.
He missed a month of his thrice-weekly workouts.
But then May through the end of the year, Whitten became a workout warrior. He rolled in in his wheelchair in the spring. He left using the stairs.
“Once I started seeing success in pulmonary rehab, within the first month I just blossomed,” he said. “It was doing so well they put me on the lung transplant list in October. I went over 100 times in those nine months. I fell in love with the treadmill.”
He also frequented the elliptical machine and bikes.
Whitten is no stranger to bikes. He rides an electric bike to his rehab sessions, even in the winter—with his oxygen strapped to the handlebars.
“When the roads are passable, I ride my bike,” Whitten said. “If they’re not, I find a ride or use public transportation.”
Don’t tell Larry he can’t do something. He’ll prove you wrong.
Whitten’s rehab suffered another setback in early February. He fell on ice in his backyard.
“I fell flat on my back and had good-sized bruises on my legs that evolved into huge blood clots,” Whitten said. “I had to have them surgically removed.”
He spent 11 days in United Hospital, receiving four blood transfusions, before returning to rehab mid-March.
“I sat on my heinie for a long time and kind of lost what I had built up—my breathing strength and my body strength,” Whitten said. “It’s kind of like starting over.”
Eyes on the prize
Make no mistake: Whitten is a determined man.
And this time, he knows he can do it. There are no doubts.
“When I first started last year, I was wheeled into that rehab clinic,” Whitten said. “I looked at all the equipment and told the RN with me, ‘There’s no way I will ever be able to do any of these.’
“Boy, oh boy, was I wrong,” he said. “I got to the point where I was walking almost a mile on the treadmill. I went out and walked all the hallways of the hospital, which was another mile. Then I fell down and got hurt.”
But just as he forged on through his blindness, Whitten plans to plow ahead with his rehab.
As an infant, Whitten contracted a severe case of measles.
“I went into convulsions and stopped breathing,” Whitten said. “When they resuscitated me, everything worked except for my eyes. My mother told me to always be grateful because it could have been worse. I made the best with what God gave me to work with.”
He worked almost his entire adult life—in factories and as a janitor—until the lung disease snuffed out his breathing ability.
“I’m not a quitter,” he said. “No way. Don’t tell Larry he can’t do something. He’ll prove you wrong.”
That’s what he’s determined to do in this next round of rehab. He wants to work even harder than he did before—so if the phone call comes for a lung transplant, he’ll be healthy enough to receive it.
“Right now, I’m walking the slowest speed on the treadmill again,” Whitten said. “But I’m determined to keep going. I’m very encouraged that I’m going to end up even stronger than prior to my fall. Someday I hope to be able to go back and do some work. Paycheck work.”
Dana Adams, RRT, cardiac and pulmonary rehab lead at Spectrum Health United Hospital, said she has no doubt Whitten can accomplish whatever he sets his sights on.
She recalls when Whitten first arrived. Like many pulmonary patients, he was short of breath walking from one end of the house to the other and the thought of exercise seemed simply terrifying.
“Larry did awesome in our program,” Adams said. “He arrived in a wheelchair that first day. As he continued in the program, you could see his self-confidence improve. He was able to control his shortness of breath using the breathing techniques he had learned. He was no longer afraid to push himself.”
Adams said Whitten graduated from phase 2 pulmonary rehab at United Hospital and continues in the phase 3 maintenance program. He shows no sign of stopping.
“What impresses me the most about Larry is his commitment,” Adams said. “Larry has been legally blind for years and commutes to our program two to three days a week on his electric bike with his little portable oxygen tank tucked in his back pack. That is dedication.
“If pulmonary rehab had a billboard, he would be our billboard patient,” she said. “We are so proud of him and how hard he worked.”