There’s now a life-changing treatment for COPD patients in Georgia

There's a new treatment for people with life-threatening lung disease COPD

A lung disease impacting more than 16 million Americans has no long-term fix, but a new treatment could help.

Piedmont Atlanta is the first hospital in Georgia to offer a new, minimally invasive treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

Channel 2 Action News spoke with Piedmont Atlanta patients, who are among the first in the state to try the new treatment. They said the results have been life changing.

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COPD robs people of their independence, dignity and for some their will to live.

“It’s a macho thing, but you start feeling less than a man,” said Elvin Kelly.

Kelly is a former amateur boxer and veteran, but years of smoking took its toll. He has been on oxygen for years, and he relies on his wife, even for the simplest of tasks.

“Secretly I would go somewhere, and I would cry. I wouldn’t want her to see me crying because I would feel like I was just a burden," Kelly said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7 percent of Georgians are diagnosed with COPD.

While tobacco use is the primary cause, secondhand smoke, fuel, dust and other pollutants can cause the disease. There is no cure. and even walking often leaves patients gasping for breath.

“Making the bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, cooking, doing laundry, so all of these activities can become very, very cumbersome and exhausting," Dr. Ralitza Martin said.

Martin is a doctor with Piedmont Pulmonary. She said COPD patients are often depressed, even suicidal, because they can’t do hobbies or leave the house. Inhalers and oxygen only slow the disease.

“What is unfortunate with a lot of the patients with COPD is that they tend to be a little older. They also have other medical problems that may prevent them from a lung transplant," Martin said.

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Now, Piedmont Atlanta is the first in the state with the new treatment.

The Zephyr valve system was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year. A doctor implants the valve with a camera through the throat and into the lungs.

It’s placed in damaged parts of the lung where trapped air causes breathlessness. The procedure lasts about an hour and patients spend around three days in the hospital.

“It’s been amazing to be able to offer this to people and to watch the transformation,” Martin said.

Debbie Ethridge says she’s proof of that transformation. She says she was homebound by COPD, but felt the results of the treatment within hours.

“I’m cooking again. Bathing and washing my hair isn’t a struggle anymore. Just talking to you is much easier than it was three months ago," Ethridge said.

Kelly calls the Zephyr procedure a second chance at life with his wife and family.

“Today I can walk, I can keep up with my wife, I can get out in the yard and work I can go to church now. So there is hope. Don’t give up," Kelly said.

The procedure has been used in Europe for years with great results. It’s covered by Medicare and most commercial insurance carriers.