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New respiratory health program gave Jeri a second wind

Jeri Mondloch’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) made it nearly impossible for her to breathe—until a new program paired Jeri with Haweya Farah, a respiratory health specialist.

Aboard an Alaskan cruise, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, Jeri Mondloch is creating wonderful memories—and defying the odds.

Jeri is living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease that can make it hard to breathe. While COPD is overwhelming for many, Jeri’s care team at University of Minnesota Medical Center have given her the tools and skills to help her live life to the fullest.

“The truly remarkable thing is that for someone with severe COPD, Jeri is doing very well and thriving,” said University of Minnesota Health Pulmonologist Patrick Arndt, MD, who has treated Jeri for eight years.

A long struggle

Two years ago, Jeri was far from thriving. Despite years of oxygen therapy, she was hospitalized in southern Minnesota when she could not recover her breath. Diagnosed with a triple pneumonia infection, Jeri was unconscious and suffering from hypercapnia—or too much carbon dioxide in the bloodstream—when she was airlifted to University of Minnesota Medical Center for life-saving treatment. Afterward, she spent months at Bethesda Hospital on a long road to recovery before going home. But the worst wasn’t over.

COPD is sometimes called emphysema or chronic bronchitis and is caused by repeated exposure to particles in the air that irritate the lungs. Smoking is often the cause of COPD, but a number of other factors, including genetics, can lead to this disease that affects millions. 

COPD patients like Jeri can become highly susceptible to viruses. “We try to keep COPD patients active and away from infections, especially during the colder months when the respiratory viruses are so prevalent,” Arndt said.

When a new case of pneumonia brought Jeri back to the medical center a short time later, her prognosis was again challenging. That's when she met Haweya Farah, a University of Minnesota Health chronic pulmonary disease specialist, whose optimism and determination began to change things for the better.

“Haweya impacted everything,” Deb Nelson, Jeri’s daughter, said. “She was so tenacious and caring—it was like we were adopted into her family.”

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New program makes a difference

In an effort to improve the well-being of COPD patients and reduce readmissions, the respiratory therapy department at the medical center developed a new program that pairs patients with specialists like Haweya.

The specialists connect patients with home care, oxygen companies, home medical equipment and medication management that fit their unique needs. The specialists also make regular follow-up calls to check in with patients, making sure every need is met and every treatment is still effective.

That personal approach is what Haweya said drives the program's success.

“Establishing trust and cultivating compassion have a direct impact on patients' health and well-being,” Haweya said. “We all can make a difference if we take the time to acknowledge each other. It takes a village.”

The impact of this newer program is promising. For patients with a primary diagnosis of COPD, the program contributed to more than a 15 percent reduction in 30-day hospital readmissions in the last year.

“When you’re short of breath, it’s both stressful and causes anxiety. The program focuses on understanding what’s going on when patients are hospitalized but also on the things that happen outside the hospital as well,” Arndt said. “It treats the whole patient in addition to their underlying lung disease.”

The program, when combined with University of Minnesota Health’s already robust research-based care, can lead to better outcomes for patients.

“We have a lot of physicians and researchers who are interested in asthma, COPD and other chronic lung diseases. That’s a huge benefit for our patients,” he said. “Our research strengthens the care that they receive.”

The trip of a lifetime

While Jeri is living independently today and managing her symptoms, taking an Alaskan cruise while living with COPD was not easy. She needed to ensure an oxygen supply and battery power were available at every stage of her travels—each airport, airplane, cruise ship and port. She also needed special permission to travel with the equipment. Despite the challenges, Jeri was able to enjoy the trip that had long been on her wish list.

“Though COPD limits you, it doesn’t have to define you,” Deb said. “The care team helped us manage and thrive through the treatment plans.”

Haweya is driven by the improvements she sees in patients like Jeri.

“It gives me great satisfaction to know that I provided Jeri with the tools to be empowered,” Haweya said. “I gave her personalized support and an individualized treatment plan, but she was able to fulfill her life-long dream herself.”