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Being self-employed means I wasn't forced to retire after COPD

Being self-employed meant Dick could take care of his lungs, and his employees, by continuing to work at his own speed.

Dick at work in March 2017

I’d never needed to see a GP until I got sick last year. I wasn’t even registered with one! But then I got an infection that I couldn’t shift whatsoever.

Then I started to lose weight, and get really breathless, until finally my daughter said: “That's it, we’re going to A&E!”

The X-ray showed that I had hyper-inflated lungs. A diagnosis was made - they said I had COPD

I blanked it out

I'd heard of COPD before, when researching my symptoms. But like most people I suppose, I ignored it and blanked it out. It was too serious. You just don’t want to know.

Once I’d been diagnosed, I realised I was going to have a long, hard think about what I was going to do about my employment. 

I kept heading to work, all throughout my flare-up and infection. It was difficult, because I was coughing up endless amounts of mucus, but I was able to function. By the end I only had 33% of my lung capacity remaining.    

I could have retired, but I didn't

I thought about retiring. I work as a production engineer, making component parts for high speed printing machines. It’s my own company, and it's very small, with one turner and one miller

I did a lot of research online, and discovered that keeping an active lifestyle is the best thing you can do if you have COPD, so I decided: “OK. I'll carry on working."

I knew it would be a huge benefit to my lungs. 

I didn't want to close down my company

I’ve also got 2 employees, who’re like extended family - one of them is coming up to working with me for 30 years! And if I packed it up, it would mean closing down the company, and putting them out of work as well. 

I doubt very much someone else would have kept me on, especially in the beginning. I struggled badly in the early days, and I couldn't even carry a bucket of water back then. But since I'm in charge, I could set my own pace and take time off for appointments when I needed to.

I'm so glad I could keep on working

Because I'm my own boss, and by keeping active, I was able to carry on working. And I’m so glad I did! 

Obviously, I’m coping with it far better now than when I was diagnosed. I admit, in the beginning it was very difficult, but sheer determination helped me to get over the hill.
I also made an effort to go a bit deeper with the breathing exercises at pulmonary rehabilitation. When you think about it, athletes who do high altitude training learn to breathe efficiently, they can climb to the top of Mount Everest, without any oxygen!

Managing breathlessness takes time

I've learned how to manage my breathing now, and now at work I don't worry about it. But keeping up with my treatments and appointments takes a lot of time out of the working day. 
Often getting to and from an afternoon appointment can mean losing half a day's work - just like that. I feel sure that if I hadn't been self-employed, I'd be unemployed now. 
Until I started my pulmonary rehab, I literally felt like a fish out of water, because I didn't know how to control or manage my breathlessness. The first appointment can also be after months have gone by. And it's not until after you've been through PR you can learn to manage and control your breathing.
So even if you could have gone back to work afterwards, you might not have been given a chance to get there.
Not everyone is lucky enough to be self-employed like me. 

Otherwise, they've not been given a chance

I don't think any decisions should be made as to whether or not someone is capable of carrying on with their job until after they've had a chance to complete their pulmonary rehabilitation. Because otherwise they've not been given a chance. 

I know that from an employer's side it's difficult too - especially with a small company like mine. But people with lung conditions should be given a chance to complete their PR before losing their opportunity to work. 

Our new report shows that lung disease costs the economy £11 billion every year. Today, we’re calling for the government to set up the first ever taskforce for lung health​. You can help. Contact your local MP or representative today and ask them to support the taskforce. 

Email your MP today

14 March 2017