The Friend Who Saved My Life: Tales of Unwavering Friendship

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A Light at the End of the Tunnel: Smoking Support Buddies

"I decided to quit smoking before my 40th birthday," says Alison Miller, now 42. "I had quit once before, when my company sponsored a program run by the American Lung Association, but I only held out about three months. My husband was a smoker and without ongoing support, I caved. Pretty soon I was back up to two packs a day."

"Then in 2003 I'd had enough. I was coughing all the time and would get winded after climbing a flight of stairs. So I went to the American Lung Association Web site to look for a support group in the San Diego area. What I found was the association's online campaign, Freedom From Smoking, at www.ffsonline.org. The site includes information, affirmations, and message boards where people can chat with one another, get questions answered and, most important, seek support. After signing up, members pick a 'quit day,' which is usually within three weeks of starting the program. Most smokers use the time before their quit day to mentally prepare themselves for what's ahead, to ask friends, family and coworkers for support, find Nicotine Anonymous classes, and even to stock up on gum and hard candy. But one morning before my three weeks were over, I found I had gone 24 hours without lighting up. I immediately logged on and posted a message that said 'I think I accidentally quit smoking but I haven't followed all the steps.'

"A member named Sandi Lorenzen answered me right away and encouraged me to keep up the good work. I felt a connection with Sandi immediately. She was about my age and had been cigarette-free for five months, ever since she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) -- of which emphysema is one form -- an illness she was told had been caused by her four-pack-a-day habit. Whenever she felt like she might slip, she said, she went online for help.

"It wasn't easy to stop reaching for a cigarette, especially at the beginning, but every time I felt the urge I'd sit down at my computer and Sandi would be there for me. There were lots of other people, too, of course, both online and off. But Sandi was my main source of help and by coincidence she lived 45 minutes from me.

"After months of chatting online, we decided to organize a meeting of members from Southern California. Sandi and I were the only two who showed up. Our friendship grew from there. Her relationship with her boyfriend was ending and I was getting a divorce, so we leaned on each other a lot. I'd be sitting in court looking over at my soon-to-be-ex and all I wanted was a cigarette. But the minute I left, I'd call Sandi and she'd talk me off the ledge. That's what we called it because she was literally saving my life.

"Not long after my divorce was finalized I met a terrific man and we just moved to Michigan to be closer to his parents, who live here, and mine, who live in western New York. Sandi has recently been promoted at the medical research facility where she works. But the best news is that her diagnosis of COPD was in error; her lungs were so damaged from years of smoking that her doctors made a mistake. Now they're almost completely clear. I'm healthy too, not just physically but emotionally. My life has never been better. And I know without a doubt that I have my dear friend Sandi to thank for that. I miss her now but I know we'll never lose touch."

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