Ernestine White, a Milford retiree, knows all too well the challenges associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, called COPD.

COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (nonreversible) asthma and some forms of bronchiectasis, according to the COPD Foundation.

It’s an all too common disease, according to Dr. Michel R. Samaha, a pulmonary medicine specialist at Bayhealth Milford Memorial. He said COPD, characterized by shortness of breath, will be the third leading cause of death in the country by 2020, although it’s easily diagnosed by a single test.

Like many COPD patients, White is a former smoker who grew up in a household surrounded by family members who smoked.

White has been an outpatient at Bayhealth Milford Memorial since 2007, where she continues to receive regular monitoring.

The testing includes an annual visit to the hospital’s Pulmonary Function Lab where she gets a thorough evaluation by Gail Semans. The battery of tests, Semans explains, looks at the elasticity of the airways under stress. “It can be difficult. Patients can feel short of breath and tired,” she said.

White, now in her 70s, was diagnosed with asthma in 1989, but didn’t realize the full extent of her illness until later. “I was a smoker from age 18, and never had a problem, but then I noticed something in 1987. I had stopped smoking by then.”

A New York City resident whose career in human resources took her across the United States and back, White and her husband retired to Milford nine years ago. She firmly believes that as she decreased her activity in retirement, her health problems became more obvious.

“Once you stop working, you stop activity, and you become more conscious of what’s wrong with you. I wasn’t aware of how serious COPD was or would be,” she said.

“It’s under-recognized and underdiagnosed. The earlier it’s caught, the better,” Dr. Samaha said. “There is no cure, but we can treat the symptoms and we can educate the patient on how to manage the disease and what to expect,” he explained.

After her diagnosis, White was determined to learn more about how to slow the progression of the disease by attending the Better Breather’s Club, a support group offered by Bayhealth. She also went to pulmonary rehab at Bayhealth Milford Memorial.

“Rehab teaches about the disease, how to deal with shortness of breath in the exercise program. And so much more. The classes are so thorough,” White said. “It makes me feel good when I come,” adding that she continues to monitor her progress with the annual pulmonary function test.

Visit Bayhealth.org/classes to learn more about the Better Breathers Club. To find a physician who can help you manage a pulmonary disease, call our physician referral service at 1-866-Bay-Docs (229-3627).