I got a call from Glen Maddison in early March: “I’ve got an idea for a great story you could write for your First Monday column.”
“Fire away,” I told him.
“Have you ever meet a guy named Harley Searson?” he asked.
“Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Well this guy is a great story for your quit smoking campaign.”
“Well… I ran into him a few years ago when he was in intensive care, literally at death’s door due to emphysema. And he smoked! Had been a smoker for over 50 years. When we got him back on his feet, I thought it would just be a number of months before he either went back on life support or died. But over the last two years he just kept getting better and better. So I called him and asked, ‘Harley, how come you’re doing so well? Your breathing is better. You’re not on oxygen as much. You haven’t been in the hospital in over a year. What gives?’
He told me, ‘I quit smoking.”
Then he added, “We got him involved in a hospice daycare program where he goes in and shares his situation with other people who have end-of-life diseases. He became a hit there by his example.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“Well he’s just such a positive guy. I would hear other patients who now actually want to go to hospice because of Harley. He just exudes this optimism and has such a positive air about him. I think that really helps people.”
“The message is that even though you’ve been smoking forever, you can still make a drastic change in your life by quitting smoking because things can still improve - and up until that moment, I thought it was very unlikely. The lesson for me – and other doctors – is to never stop having the conversation, even though somebody’s been told multiple times to quit smoking. Maybe you have to say it a different way, but don’t ever just give up on them and think, “well, there’s no point. They’re too far gone to quit now.”
A week later I was sitting in Harley Searson’s kitchen.
Harley is 71 years old and started smoking when he was 14. By age 17 he was smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes every day and he did this for the next 53 years. When he was 58, he was diagnosed with emphysema – one of the three big killers of smokers.
But Harley was fearless and continued to smoke.
Then in 2009 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was told that it had gelled and was floating through his body. It had not metastasized (attached itself to another organ) but there was just so much of it that they decided not to go after it: he’d never survive the surgery.
Instead he went to the cancer clinic in London for radiation. Normal PSA readings for guys in their seventies is 1 to 1.5. Harley’s was 628! The radiation brought it down to 48.5 where it is today.
He told me, “When I was diagnosed in 2002 with emphysema I was told to quit smoking, but I always thought I was invincible. I was in a state of denial. I knew a guy that hadn’t smoked in 30 years and he got lung cancer so I didn’t think much about it. I had tried off and on to quit but that never went anywhere.
I was on oxygen and would take the oxygen mask off and then go out and have a cigarette. Then I’d come back in and put the oxygen mask back on.
Because I kept smoking I actually ended up on my death bed. What really scared me was when my wife asked me who I wanted for pallbearers. That’s when it hit me – I realized the real cost of smoking and that’s when I quit.”
He pointed to the living room where there was a hospital bed that dominated the room.
“That’s where I sleep. I can’t sleep upstairs because I can’t get up there. It’s too hard a trip. I can’t sleep laying down because my lungs fill up with fluid and I’m up coughing all night. I have to sleep elevated… almost vertically.
But the biggest price I pay for smoking is that I’ve lost my freedom of life: I can’t do what I want to do. That blank space out beside my driveway is where I used to park my fifth wheel trailer and truck for camping. Something my wife and I did for over 40 years.”
He adds, “My wife has lost so much too. When you look at everything over all, I’ve wasted a good life – a really good life – because I smoked. Look at these.”
He points to a neatly arranged pile of pills – about 30 of them, “I take those pills every day. Only three of them are for my cancer. The rest are for the emphysema.
If you are talking to someone who has emphysema and is still smoking, don’t give them numbers and statistics. That won’t impress them. Sure, I agree with the stats in your book, but what really impresses people is the loss of lifestyle. You need to get to know and actually see what I’ve had to give up.”
Here is something strange.
Harley said, “I’ve been a very lucky man.”
I told him, “Harley, looking at all this, I don’t see how the word luck even comes into your vocabulary.”
“I am not in any pain.” He chuckles, “That’s the lucky part.”
“That’s great. So how do you feel… physically?”
“Look at me. Ask anybody that knows me. I look fabulous. Sure… some days I feel like shit. Nauseated. No energy. Sometimes deep bouts of depression. But… when I feel like I do today, I feel very lucky. Because I know how I could feel. The hospice is a great help.”
Looking serious now, “I am very spiritual. I believe in God and I pray every day. I ask God to help me get through the day without a drink.” With a world-weary smile, “You see I’m also an alcoholic.”
I ask him, “How long since you quit drinking?”
“I quit drinking 34 years ago and oddly enough, what kept me going when I quit drinking was coffee and cigarettes.
Actually, I’m not sure if you could call it luck any more because when I joined AA, I became a spiritual person. Learning how to live sober is one hell of a job. I had a lot of work to do and I needed help.”
Harley bought into the trailer camping lifestyle with the money he saved by not drinking and then lamented the irony of losing the life he loved because he smoked.
When he quit drinking a case of 24 beers was $11.99.
“Today it’s $39.99! That’s of lot of beer to ‘Not’ drink,” he said.
When he started smoking, cigarettes were 35 cents a pack. Today they are $10.
But his biggest regret as far as the cost of smoking is not the money… it’s the lifestyle that he has lost. Yet - despite all of that - he is still smiling (most of the time). He is still helping and inspiring other people in the same boat he is. “For different reasons maybe, but we’re in the same boat.”
He is a man who is facing the most tragic consequences of smoking and yet says, “I want to go to heaven. I just don’t want to go today.”
He really believes that there is something outside of him that he connects with that helps him deal with all of this. He tells me, “I don’t really want to share my spirituality with you but I do believe in a god that I have come to understand, and someday you may understand it too. But it doesn’t just come to you. You have to go to it. This is not a coincidence. I believe there is help out there, you just have to ask for it.”
So what is the real message here?
Glen Maddison would say that it’s never too late to quit smoking and never give up on the conversation.
I’m sure Harley Searson would agree with that since he would not be here today if he had not quit smoking.
But there is something else. Something that I do not really understand since I do not walk in Harley’s shoes. I always thought that if I was in Harley’s situation, I would not want to go on? Now I am not so sure as I ask myself what it really is that makes him want to go on?
Family? Friends? A warm, sunny day? A sense of purpose? A belief in something bigger than all of this?
I’m quite sure all of those factors come into play here and they are obviously working for Harley and he uses what that gives him to help others deal with their pain and suffering. That takes a good man.
I have always been a seeker of the truth, so for a guy who used to, “Swear there ain’t no heaven and pray there ain’t no hell,” seeing this is a big step for me… hopefully in the right direction.
Here is something I really do believe - something a very smart guy once told me about smoking: “There is only one good thing that can ever happen to you as a result of your smoking and that would be that nothing would happen to you. Because if anything else happens to you as a result of your smoking, I can guarantee you that you will not like it one little bit.”
And that is not just my opinion. That my friends… is a fact.