The Glory of Gum – A Smoker’s Tale

Recently, on a medical sojourn, I was met at the airport by a garrulous woman driver. She was a young-appearing fifty year old who as it turns out had recently sustained a TIA, or “mini-stroke.” Although my first thought was atrial fibrillation, she actually had developed a near occlusion of her left carotid artery. Her right carotid artery, she informed me, had a mere 40% stenosis. Our discussion continued and I gleaned that she had a very strong family history of early onset vascular disease, several close relatives even dying quite young from their events. So my next thought was Familial Hypercholesterolemia. But no, her LDL was apparently normal. Then she fessed up. She had been – and continued to be – a smoker. Just like everyone else in her family! Shocking.

To smoke cigarettes nowadays is something I simply cannot wrap my head around. Cancer, stroke, heart disease, lung disease, wrinkles… Tobacco is devoid of any redeeming quality. It’s just plain bad. So why would anyone smoke in the first place? But, once an individual has experienced a near death event that is a direct consequence of tobacco, how in the world could she continue to smoke. My 40-minute drive took on a mission. I was going to get her to quit. I asked about her children and even grandchildren. We spoke about loss of limbs, dependence upon an oxygen tank, facial cancers and their attendant disfigurement, another stroke – the next one of course placing her in a wheel chair, unable to speak or care for herself. Then she dropped me at my destination. She was to pick me up several hours later. Before stepping out of the car I told her with stern authority that a cigarette should never again cross her lips. Chew gum I said. Gain weight if you must, but please don’t ever come near another cigarette. (I must confess; my tone was intentionally severe and perhaps even paternal. The impact I hoped would justify my behavior.)

I went through my day, completed my tasks, and eagerly awaited her return. Upon her arrival she stepped from the car and proudly and loudly through a mouthful of gum intoned that she had done it. She quit smoking. I am not certain whether her resolution will last an hour or a lifetime. For that moment though she was no longer a smoker. A gum chewer yes, but not a smoker.

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