Marlene Klein sensed something was wrong with her vision, about 20 years ago, after her bathroom was renovated.
“When my husband came home, I told him we weren’t going to pay the guy who put down the tiles because they all zigzagged. ‘No,’ he answered. ‘They’re perfectly straight.’” Marlene remembered. When John and I went into Manhattan, the right side of all the billboards looked like wisps of clouds. I couldn’t make out the whole billboard.”
Obviously concerned, Marlene wanted to find out what was happening with her eyesight, but doctor after doctor told her to go home, relax and enjoy her evening, reassuring her that her eyes were just fine.
When Dr. Susan Bressler, a renowned retina specialist with the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, examined Marlene, however, she broke the bad news: ‘’You have macular degeneration,” the doctor announced. “Then, she immediately asked me, ‘Do you smoke?’ “Marlene recalled.
Macular degeneration, often called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), affects the macula, the central part of the retina that allows the eye to see fine details. Associated with aging, AMD damages sharp and central vision, which we need to see objects clearly and for common daily tasks such as reading and driving.
“I have wet macular degeneration, (there’s also dry AMD) where an abnormal blood vessel behind the retina leaks blood and fluid, and causes the damage leading to loss of central vision,” Marlene explained. An early symptom of wet AMD is that straight lines appear wavy, which is just what Marlene saw with her new bathroom tiles.
Dr. Bressler didn’t know for sure if Marlene’s AMD was a result of smoking, but she advised her to stop smoking immediately because “it’s not healthy.” Marlene didn’t listen. “At the time, there was no treatment for macular degeneration. No cure. No nothing. I thought if the damage is done, the damage is done, I wasn’t going to sit in a corner alone and feel sorry for myself. So you bet your rear end, I continued smoking.”
Find out what happened to Marlene by reading our interview with her.
FOF: Tell us a little about your background?
MK: I live in Commack, NY, and have been happily married for 47 years, even though my husband asked me to marry him after three weeks. We met on a blind date. He was leaving for Vietnam in three weeks, so he proposed to me. We have three wonderful, wonderful daughters and five grandchildren. I’ve always been a stay-at-home mom.
My husband worked for a pharma company for many years, until it was sold.. Now he’s with the government. He’s my rock.
FOF: When did you start smoking?
MK: I was 15 when I started smoking, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I saw the movie “High School Confidential,” where the kids in the cool group smoked. I came home and took a cigarette from my mother’s pack, went into the bathroom, opened the window and started smoking, A neighbor showed me how to inhale and blow smoke rings.
Once, when we were out to dinner as a family, I followed mom to the ladies room, where I told her. ‘Mom, I have to tell you something.’ Before I could finish the sentence, she said, ‘I know you smoke. I’m not dumb. The cigarettes in my packs were dwindling and I smelled it on your clothes.’ She didn’t tell me to stop, but said she preferred that I smoke in the house, not outside.
FOF: Did your daughters smoke?
MK: Yes, they all smoked and their children were born prematurely, just like they were. Smoking increases your chances of having children prematurely, with lower birth weights. When I gave birth, I’d have a pack under my pillow and would ask the nurse: ‘Can I smoke now? Can I smoke now?’
My daughters stopped smoking.
FOF: How much were you smoking?
MK: I was smoking 1.5 packs at my height. It never occurred to me to stop. My mom smoked. Why should I think of stopping? Even my primary care doctor had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth smoke while he examined me.
I worked in Manhattan and we could smoke at our desks. I smoked on the railroad. I smoked when we got home. My husband also smoked. When I wanted to become pregnant I vowed that I’d try not to smoke. Although I continued to smoke, I didn’t do it as frequently. I remember the warnings on my cigarette packs and I’d say, ‘What are they trying to tell me?’
FOF: If your macular degeneration diagnosis didn’t force you to stop smoking, what did?
MK: When we found out we were going to be grandparents for the first time, we realized we wanted to live to see our grandchildren grow up. John had bladder cancer, which was absolutely caused by smoking, and by then we know smoking was definitively associated with lung cancer,
So we both made a promise to stop, and now it’s been 7 years and 5 months that we’re smoke free.
FOF: Did you stop cold turkey?
MK: I didn’t want to take any chances so I went to see my primary care doctor. He gave me a medication that suppressed my urges to smoke, but I’d be up at 3 AM with all this energy. I became sleep deprived and started having heart palpitations, so I stopped taking the medication and went on the patch. Then I was able to stop completely. I didn’t even smoke when my mother was dying. She was my mentor, and if I didn’t stop during that period, I knew I’d never have another cigarette again.
FOF: How is your macular degeneration doing?
MK: I started getting injections in my eyes about eight years ago. I passed out when I had a blood test for my marriage license, so how was I going to get needles in my eyes, I thought. But I said to myself: ‘You didn’t listen to the doctor and you continued smoking. So if needles were going to help, then so be it.’ I didn’t want to lose my vision. Oh no. I was willing to do anything at that point.
I’ve had over 150 injections in each eye, which are supposed to dry up the fluid and slow down the progress of the disease. When I was first diagnosed my vision was 20/200 and I was considered legally blind. And now my vision is 20/30 in one eye and 20/40 in the other and I I still have my central vision. But the injections will not cure the disease.
Every month, Dr. Bressler gives me an injection in each eye, over a two day period.
FOF: Please tell us about the CDC anti-smoking campaign with which you’re involved?
MK: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a national tobacco education campaign, called Tips From Former Smokers, in March 2012. It features videos of real people, like me, who are living with serious long-term health effects from smoking and secondhand smoke exposure. You have to watch my videos. They’ve gotten millions of views.
ED NOTE: A statement from the CDC reads: “Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans annually. Smoking causes immediate damage to your body, which can lead to long-term health problems. For every smoking-related death, at least 30 Americans live with a smoking-related illness. The only proven strategy to protect yourself from harm is to never smoke, and if you do smoke or use tobacco products, to quit.”
Besides the videos, the CDC offers other valuable tools to help smokers stop the ugly habit, including a 1-800 number on which they can get real-time advice and support. (1-800-784-8669)
FOF: How did you learn of the campaign?
MK: I joined a a low-vision group on the internet and someone put out that the CDC was looking for a former smoker with macular degeneration. They wanted to highlight less-familiar conditions that were associated with smoking
I am 5’ tall, but I have a big mouth, and I now feel like I was put here for a reason. I filled out an application and I was one of the people who they chose for the campaign.
FOF: What would you advise someone who has been smoking for years, has nothing wrong with them, and are addicted to smoking.
MK: I would talk to them as a friend. Years ago, I had no friends to tell me to stop. Even if
you think you’re ok, you must go to your primary care doctor. There is medication out there to help. The CDC has programs to help.
It’s a horrible, horrible addiction. I could walk around with heroin and I’d be arrested. But it’s fine and dandy to walk around with cigarettes. Stop before someone tells you there is something wrong with you. I especially want to reach out to children because they’re very vulnerable. I explain that I’m cooler now that I don’t smoke. You can be cool and do other things. Stop before a doctor tells you that you have six months to live.
I recently went to a middle school to talk to kids. When I was finished, they all got up and started clapping. ‘Thank you so much for helping us!’ they said.
When my campaign launched earlier this year, and I put my video on my Facebook page, so many people sent emails thanking me very much. They’d even tell me that their grown children were affected by it.
FOF: Can you send us a picture when you were smoking?
MK: I burned them all.