Michael Patterson, the self-proclaimed “Ghostwalker” of Juneau, continues to wage a battle against tobacco in his home state. He was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, a form of emphysema, when he was only 44 years old.
Patterson works with the Alaska Native community as a relatable spokesperson for the Center for Disease Control’s anti-smoking campaign. According to the American Lung Association, Alaska Native and American Indian youths have a 23 percent smoking rate, the highest in the country.
“When I made that commercial in New York, they said, ‘You are going to save millions of lives,’” Patterson said. His 2012 commercial for the CDC’s anti-smoking campaign gained national attention.
At the time of his diagnosis, doctors gave him five more years to live, he said. Patterson has survived two years past that mark. He calls himself a ghostwalker because he now lives on borrowed time.
Within the next year, he says he will need either a lung transplant, from which he might not recover, or a permanent oxygen tank.
In the last year, Patterson has lost 9 percent of his lung volume, and he says the downtown smoking situation is the culprit. He sees second-hand smoking as an unavoidable danger.
“I want to see smoking removed from the streets of Juneau,” Patterson said.
He had planned to propose a ban on smoking in all public locations, both indoors and outdoors, at the next convention of the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance, but they denied his request, in favor of a focus on smoke-free workplaces, he said. He still plans to breach the topic when he speaks at the summit.
Patterson said he worries for children picking cigarette butts off the street in a city which he calls a “smoke gauntlet.” In response to the City and Borough of Juneau’s proposed $2 increase in tobacco sales tax, he said “kids are resourceful,” and if smoking is allowed in public locations, they will find a way, despite the cost.
Since his election as the official spokesperson for the CDC, Patterson has dedicated the time he has left to visiting schools and communities across Alaska to fight what he calls “the code of silence.”
Many youth growing up on the streets of Juneau are victims of abuse and never tell anyone, Patterson said. They live in silence, and cope in damaging ways, he said.
Patterson said using “shock treatment” on these kids through graphic images and shocking statistics, like he had in grade school, has minimal effects. Patterson began smoking when he was only nine years old.
“I would shut them out. Say it’s none of their business and I am not hurting anyone but myself,” he said.
After a recent speech at an elementary school, parents contacted Patterson about their children pointing to their hearts when they got home from school and telling the parents that when Patterson spoke, “they could feel it here.”
One mother said her 9-year-old son told her, “Please stop smoking and I love you.”
The motivational speaker, who often delivers speeches with tears running down his cheeks, said speaking from the heart is what really sways young people.
“If you shock me, I’ll get over it. If you touch my heart, it will really have an affect on me long-term,” he said.
His campaign has already led him to speak at schools in Kodiak, Sitka, Angoon, Hoonah and Pelican. He plans to speak at Yaakoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School on Nov. 21 and hopes to be invited to other schools in the district.
“I know there are budget crunches,” he said. He would be willing to waive the typical speaker fee and visit the schools for free. “I just need to be out there, sharing my story.”
Patterson was asked recently to speak via webcast to a group of graduating students at the University of Washington School of Medicine by the Director of the CDC’s office on smoking and health, Timothy McAfee.
Patterson was surprised to see over 100 students listening to his talk that day.
“When I asked if there were any questions (after the speech) there was dead silence for like two minutes,” Patterson said.
Feeling embarrassed, he quickly closed his speech. McAfee thought this to be strange and later asked the facilitator what the medical students’ reactions had been. The response came back that they were left speechless, a rare event.
This hit close to home for Patterson who was told by his first doctor upon diagnosis that he “only had emphysema, not cancer.” Patterson continued to smoke after his diagnosis because he did not understand the significance of COPD, and didn’t quit until he suffered his first attack and was placed on a breathing machine.
Patterson’s own daughter recently lost her mother to lung cancer, and a non-smoking colleague from the CDC, Nathan Moose, died from the effects of second-hand smoke.
Patterson described a recent vision, in which a black mountain was crested with a large white mansion. The mansion represented the wealth and power of the tobacco companies, supported by dozens of coffins.
“My coffin has $300,000 (spent on tobacco),” he said. “How much will yours have?”
The American Cancer Society will hold the 39th Annual Great American Smokeout on Thursday, in which smokers are encouraged to quit for one day.
•Reporter Stephanie Shor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (907) 523-2279.