A PRAXIS Perspective: Karen Hannibal
This post was written by Kristen Willard, M.S.
Karen Hannibal is a spirited, adventuresome 69-year-old living in Southern California. She has an infectious laugh that peppers our conversations and she speaks her mind about issues that are important to her. Karen is an advocate and something of a sponge when it comes to knowledge – resulting in her tendency to volunteer and become a self-described “guinea pig.” She likes golf, Indian food and any movie starring Anthony Hopkins. She also has COPD.
Karen was diagnosed with COPD more than a decade ago, in her mid-50s. While her physicians initially suspected she suffered from asthma, spirometry ultimately revealed her true diagnosis. She found the process confusing. “I wish I’d had more information about COPD. It didn’t all make sense yet,” Karen says. “I also wanted them to explain my medications more clearly – what is it going to do for me?” Several years after being diagnosed, she began using prescription oxygen. As her symptoms progressed, her curious nature led her to explore the possibility of participating in a clinical trial. When she identified one she thought she qualified for? Ever her own advocate, Karen printed out the information and took it to her doctor to discuss further. She enrolled in the study only weeks later.
Karen believes her COPD is likely related to her early cigarette smoking. Breathing difficulties ultimately pushed her to attempt to quit; she recognized something was wrong and that her lungs were compromised. “You don’t want to know,” she says, “even though you know.” What worked? “I finally went to a smoking cessation class through my healthcare provider,” she said. “I had tried five times before that.” Ultimately, it was that combination of medication, support and planning that led to her success in quitting. She acknowledges the pull of cigarettes and becomes frustrated when talking about the advertising of cigarette companies. “They lied to us,” she says. “I changed cigarettes thinking they were ‘lighter’ – they just made the tobacco stronger!”
Her strong views on smoking have translated into advocacy in favor of environmental reform, specifically in the realm of healthy housing. She supports national smoking restrictions so all can feel safe in their homes and is seeking out opportunities to support this reform in a meaningful way. She is clear too about the need for basic supports that can help those with a chronic illness to maintain their independence and basic activities of daily living. Speaking of small modifications that housing complexes can make to support the mobility of their residents, Karen says, “there are no grab bars in the bathroom, no benches anywhere where we can sit and rest.”
Karen embraces support, no matter the form it takes. She is an unabashed public user of her prescribed oxygen and will use mobility scooters as needed when out shopping. She recognizes that this brings attention to her and kids sometimes stare, but Karen remains undeterred. “I bet you’d like to ride in this cart with me, wouldn’t you?” she jokes with children who linger to look. (That infectious laugh? It immediately follows.) She has home health care support that includes weekly visits from a nurse who checks her vitals and talks with her about her medications as well as a caregiver who provides support with everyday activities. These visits extend beyond the provision of physical support; she finds the connection with a caring professional to be of great value. She also encourages the public not to be hesitant to help those who appear to be struggling. “Help helps!” she states emphatically. “People only offer help when they see that you are almost to the point of passing out. COPD impacts us even when we aren’t to that point.”
Karen has been hospitalized multiple times, most recently for two bouts with pneumonia from which it took 10 months to recover. She is a believer in the post-hospital syndrome; memories of a difficult hospital stay remain with her. “For 20 hours, they could not find me a bed,” she says. When the facility secured her a space, she found her rest interrupted by repeated visits from hospital staff. Karen shares a concern common to many hospitalized patients: “I couldn’t sleep.” Following her pneumonia and repeated hospitalizations, she is much more proactive about her care. To prevent exacerbations, she takes action immediately when warning signs arise. “I see my doctor right away,” she says.
While she acknowledges that having a chronic illness has made her lose a bit of her sacred patience, she works to maintain a bright attitude. Exercise is one way in which she works to improve her quality of life. Karen has completed pulmonary rehabilitation and now participates in Silver Sneakers, an exercise program that is intended specifically for older adults. Karen’s next adventures? A program to improve her balance as well as a return to swimming. She has purchased a bright red wet suit to keep her warm in the chilly water. As she describes it I hear that laugh again. And I smile, convinced there’s no better color in the world to suit her.
This page was reviewed on March 5, 2020 by the COPD Foundation Content Review and Evaluation Committee