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Fighting to the last breath

Native Juneauite takes national stage to stop smoking

Posted: April 14, 2013 - 12:01am
Michael George Patterson is a Juneau resident featured in a new advertising campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the effects of tobacco use.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael George Patterson is a Juneau resident featured in a new advertising campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the effects of tobacco use.

“Cancer’s not the worst thing you can get,” warned Michael George Patterson, a Juneau resident who has become a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their new anti-smoking campaign. Patterson knows first hand, as he was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) at age 44.

“I go through an event that they call trapping,” Patterson explained, “It’s an extreme exasperation attack and what it is is I trap air in my lungs, my lungs are trapped full of air, and I can’t use that air, it’s just laying stagnant in my lungs and it’s only allowing me to take tiny gulps of air on top of it to live off of. And ever gulp I take I have to fight for, and I mean fight hard to get it, and it’s suffocating. You’re getting barely enough air to survive and every cell in your body is screaming that you’re gonna die, that you’re suffocating.”

His first attack struck at age 52 and lasted four hours. When he noticed severe shortness of breath, he called an ambulance and was taken to the hospital, and paramedics and doctors fought for hours to keep him alive.

“I had to endure that mind numbing, heart ripping terror for four solid hours. In the end I lost, I ran out of strength to fight. They put me on a machine and the machine breathed for me for a while until I was able to get off of it. My doctor said the machine wouldn’t always save my life. The terror was so severe that it really burned the desire to smoke a cigarette ever again, really, ever, out of me. I’ve never smoked a cigarette since. But the terror also burned something else into me — when I experienced that, it was so horrifying that I could not imagine another living being ever having to suffer what I just suffered.”

Patterson started smoking when he was only 9 years old. He had to grow up fast.

“I was born into an alcoholic family, so there was a lot of domestic violence and things were pretty severe back then. I remember having to basically leave home at 9 years old, I felt like if I didn’t do that I was going to be beat to death. I actually lived on South Franklin for two years before they were able to figure out I was there,” Patterson said, “As a result, I started smoking when I was 9 years old. It correlated with my leaving home. I stepped into the big people’s world and that was one of the things that was in the big people’s world.”

Cigarettes were easy to come by in those days, the 57-year-old said, Juneau “used to have cigarette machines all over downtown. We used to go to the Mendenhall Apartments because they had one between the doors and the outside door was always unlocked… that gave us access to the cigarette machine and we would just tip the machine forward and shake it and all the cigarettes would fall out.”

At age 11, Patterson started cycling through foster care and group homes, ending up in the juvenile division of the Lemon Creek Correctional Center during his high school years, he said.

“I had issues with everybody, I mean, it was me against the world. I was unable to let anybody near me, I had so much rage. I was really hard to deal with, (my foster parents in Sitka) fought with me for two years, they desperately wanted to adopt me and raise me as their own, but I didn’t allow their love to break through in those two years, I fought them until they finally had to give up. Then I came back to Juneau and was only at home for a day before they put me in the Juneau Receiving Home until I fought my way out of there, I fought my way out of every group home they could put me in in Juneau.”

At age 17, he said the state declared him an emancipated minor, at which point he knew some things had to change — not smoking, though.

Patterson spent much of his life as what he called a “hardcore street person.” His work history was spotty, with the exception of serving in the U.S. Army for a couple years in his early to mid-twenties. Much of his troubles, he said, could be attributed to severe depression that was undiagnosed until his late teens or early twenties.

His street lifestyle continued until he turned 37.

“That’s when my daughter was born and it changed everything for me,” Patterson said. Except smoking. He went into recovery and quit drinking and using drugs, but he said that actually increased his use of cigarettes. “When I got into recovery, my smoking intake doubled, my coffee intake doubled, it’s like, you quit one addiction and it just moves into another.”

It was still a major turning point in Patterson’s life.

“When my daughter was born then obviously I had to become part of a home life, I had to get work and make sure that I could provide for her, and I just became a homebody and I started to pour all of my heart and soul into her. She just kind of became my world. She’s the first person I probably had selfless love for and she just loved me no matter what. She just really gave me a purpose in life. Every decision I would make from that point on revolved around what was good for my daughter, what I needed to do to take care of her. Even to the point where I gave up relationships for 15 years for her. I decided I wasn’t going to bother with it anymore, I was just going to raise my daughter. That’s my mission, that’s my legacy, something that I can say my life actually meant something, amounted to something because of her.”

He has two grandchildren now, ages 1 and 3, who he clearly adores. But while many grandparents look forward to seeing the graduations and marriages and major milestones of their grandchildren, Patterson’s goal is meager.

“I’m just hoping to live long enough for them to be at least five or older so they’ll remember who Papa was,” Patterson said.

He lives with his daughter and grandchildren now, which allows him to spend as much time as possible with them. “I live with my daughter now because I can pass away at any time... It gives me the opportunity to develop a real bond with my grandson and my granddaughter.”

The only thing he allows to drag him away from his family is travel for his speaking engagements with the CDC campaign. Patterson said, “I want to spend the rest of my life, every breath that I have left, to stop as many people as I can from having to experience (COPD).”

Patterson elaborated on why he considers COPD to be a fate worse than cancer.

“COPD and emphysema are much more terrifying than cancer. Most people express that when they die, they want to die quick, but with COPD and emphysema, it’s slow and drawn out, and it’s suffocating you more and more and more.”

Patterson even opted into a lung reduction surgery that offered only a 50 percent chance of survival, because, he said, “At 37 percent lung volume, life was so scary that I preferred death over— death or making it and being a little more comfortable.”

It was a risk worth taking, as Patterson survived the surgery, performed three years ago at the University of Washington Medical Center. His recovery was incredibly painful and difficult, he said, but he anticipates the recovery for a lung transplant will be much worse.

“I want to live, I want to watch my grandchildren grow up. Of course I’m going to take that step, I’m going to get that surgery (a lung transplant), but I don’t know if I’m going to have enough to make it. You literally have to fight for your life afterward. And, say I do make it, that’s a happy scenario, but I’m going to have to live on powerful drugs the rest of my life that knock my immune system down to keep me from rejecting the new lungs. Which basically means I’m setting myself up for being sick a lot. I pride myself on having a strong immune system, I rarely get sick...” Patterson said, but his health will remain fragile no matter the procedures he might endure, “Getting a really strong cold or flu could kill me.”

Though Patterson appears vibrant and animated in an interview or speaking engagement, he admits he is hiding his weakness to the extent he can. “ If I have to take something up a flight of stairs, I’m not going to let people see me do that, because at the top of those stairs I’m fighting for my breath, fighting to get control of it,” he said. “I want to live, at least in other people’s eyes, normal until the end. I don’t want to draw pity from other people.”

There are some things Patterson can’t — and doesn’t — hide. During speaking engagements, he said he can be moved to tears. He shows his emotions and his passion for the subject, and he said he thinks it makes his message that much more effective.

A woman Patterson knew through the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance suggested Patterson apply to become a CDC spokesperson; he waited three to four months to follow the link she provided and apply because he “didn’t want to torture myself. It was a million to one, no way they were ever going to select me, at least that’s the way I felt about it.”

“It was like every dream, every hope that I had left for what’s left of my life come true, because I know that I’m at the end stages of my life, that I’m either gonna make it or I’m not,” Patterson said, “Here’s what I want to accomplish in the meantime. I want to sound that alert to as many young people as I can, so that they don’t have to throw away their youth and their health and find out later in life they have so much to live for, but that they don’t have a life to do it.”

Patterson speaks of being part of this campaign as a calling; with the fervor of an evangelist he explained finding his meaning in life through his brush with death.

“A lot of times when I’m speaking before those kids, I’ll have tears on my cheeks, my voice will be shaking, but I won’t waver in what I’m saying to them. They know that when someone’s speaking to them like that, they’re not just throwing head knowledge at them. You can show them a pig’s lung after 20 years of being subjected to tobacco and you’re gonna make them squeal a little bit, it’ll make their stomach’s turn a little bit, but it’s not gonna touch their hearts,” he said.

Patterson also believes he has a unique ability to relate to his audience, an audience that has expanded from local high school appearances to engagements across Alaska and the United States. He has also filmed a nationally aired ad and will have a speech broadcast to all of rural Alaska. His difficult life and a vivid memory of his mindset growing up allow him to connect, he said.

“It seems like my whole life groomed me to do what I’m doing right now. I can pretty much speak to all people at all levels... because I’ve suffered in ways that some people have and some people never have... as long as I’m willing to be honest and open. This is like my mission in life, I’m putting my entire being into doing this, and it means more to me than anything to be able to stop as many people as I can. I know, even though they don’t know, that they’re going to find life is a miracle.”

Find more information on the CDC campaign, on the effects of smoking and resources for how to quit, online at www.cdc.gov/tobacco — Patterson’s ad can be found among the 2013 Tips From Former Smokers.

• Contact News and Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

Editor's note: A post-press phone call with Patterson included some clarification on two points.

Patterson noted that his parents and immediate family have also made a transition in their lives, that they are part of each other's lives and that they no longer have alcohol abuse problems.

Patterson also hoped to express that he did not intend to make light of cancer, his comparison, he said, stems mostly from the fact that COPD frequently strikes at a younger age and can involve many long years of suffering. 

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