BEEKMANTOWN - The simple act of breathing is one that can be taken for granted. But, for Gerald LaValley of Beekmantown, it's one he appreciates breath by breath.
LaValley suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a serious lung disease that narrows his airways, making it difficult for him to breathe. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute,the disease, commonly known as COPD, causes serious, long-term disability and is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. The institute also states more than 12 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD and an additional 12 million likely have the disease, yet are unaware of it.
"It's a bad disease," said LaValley. "But, some days are better than others."
LaValley was first diagnosed with COPD in 1998, at the age of 43. A few years later, his symptoms worsened enough for him to have to go out on disability from his job as an over-the-road truck driver. Now 54, LaValley's symptoms are the worst they've ever been, he said, requiring him to use an oxygen tank to breathe on a regular basis.
"I've only got about a quarter of a lung left," he said. "I drove truck most of my life and I can't do it anymore. I can still drive but I don't get around as good as I used to."
Although LaValley admits he used to smoke, he feels the hastening of his condition was caused by painting he used to do for one of his sidejobs.
"I used to paint equipment without a mask because I'm chlostrophobic," said LaValley. "I'm sure there were a lot of chemicals that got in my lungs."
LaValley said his doctors have told him there's a possibility that could have very well caused damage to his lungs.
"I know people who have smoked for a long time and they're not as bad off as I am," said LaValley.
Since last year, LaValley has been on a waiting list for a double-lung transplant. In order to qualify to be on the list, he has to go through a rigorous physical examination every three months at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a teaching affiliate hospital of Harvard Medical School. So far, LaValley said he has been offered three sets of lungs, though none have worked out for him.
"The first time there wasn't enough time to get there, and the second time, the lungs they had already had asthma, and I didn't want to trade one problem for another," said LaValley. "The last time, they found out one of lungs was bad."
"The doctors told me this might happen eight, 10 times," he added. "They told me I might get there for the transplant and send me back home because of some problem they could find with the lung."
So, until LaValley can find suitable replacements for his lungs, he continues the day-to-day struggle with his condition. When that day comes, however, he plans to be ready.
"They've already told me the surgery for a single-lung transplant would be about six to eight hours; a double-lung would be about eight to 14," he said. "Then, it would be about two to eight weeks before I would be able to go home. I'm hoping it'll be two weeks."
Having to spend the majority of his time at home, LaValley said he is eagerly awaiting the new lease on life a new set of lungs would give him.
"I've been told I'll be able to go back and do some of the activities I used to do, but as far as going back to work, I don't know if I'll be able to do that," said LaValley. "I'd like to go back to work, though. If my body lets me do it, I'll do it."
"I hate sitting around the house. I have a Skidoo out there; I'd love to be on it," he added.
As for whether or not that day will come, LaValley said he hasn't lost hope.
"I haven't sold it yet," he said.
While LaValley has insurance that will help him with the cost of the operation, there is still a burden of traveling, lodging and other expenses. Schuyler Falls resident Crystal Simpson and her husband, two of LaValley's long-time friends, will be throwing a benefit in his honor this Saturday at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 309, State Route 22B, Peru.
"After he talked to the doctors in Boston and found out the details, we figured he'd need some help with expenses," she said. "Gerald's a really good guy. He would do anything for anybody. We're just glad to be there for him."
"I'm very lucky to have them," LaValley said of the Simpsons.
This Saturday's benefit will begin at noon, with a spaghetti dinner to be served for a $6 donation. Entertainment will follow at 1 p.m., provided by local bands including The Bootleg Band, Full Circle, Night Train, and The Backwoods Band. The afternoon will also include a live auction, 50/50 raffles and a bake sale.
For more information, or to make a donation to help LaValley, contact Simpson at 569-5955 or the Peru VFW at 643-2309.