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Alaskan with ruined lungs now face of CDC's anti-smoking effort

Alex DeMarban
Michael Patterson, a formerly homeless person who started smoking at age 9, has stories of carved-away lungs, battles to breathe, and doctors who tell him he's a walking dead man living on borrowed time. He'll be taking those stories on the road to schools and events around Alaska in the coming months, now that he's been plucked out of obscurity to be an anti-smoking voice for the CDC cause and the Alaska Tobacco Prevention and Control Program. Rhonda McBride Faubion photo

The new face behind a nationwide campaign to scare smokers away from their cigarettes is a Tlingit man from Juneau, Alaska, with sincere brown eyes and long black hair. It's a face you might see a lot of soon, now that the national Centers for Disease Control has launched a second round of graphic commercials featuring former smokers, with an emphasis on the nation's most prolific puffers, American Indians and Alaska Natives.

It's not what's on the outside that will make you remember Michael Patterson, a formerly homeless person who started smoking at age 9. It's his stories of carved-away lungs, battles to breathe, and doctors who tell him he's a walking dead man living on borrowed time.

He'll be taking those stories on the road to schools and events around Alaska in the coming months, now that he's been plucked out of obscurity to be an anti-smoking voice for the CDC cause and the Alaska Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.

The "Tips from Former Smokers" campaign follows on the heels of a similar effort by the CDC last year that sparked a massive surge of interest in quit lines and such quit sites as smokefree.gov, according to a recent story in The New York Times.    

The Times story touches on Patterson' heart-breaking 30-second message in which he describes the effects of four decades of smoking.

“I have a tip for you,” says Patterson, 57. “If your doctor gives you five years to live, spend it talking with your grandchildren. Explain to them that your grandpa is not going to be around anymore to share his wisdom and his love. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, and I’m running out of time.”

Patterson started smoking at age 9. He was also sleeping on the streets to avoid an alcoholic father, who's now dead of lung cancer from smoking. That was the 1960s, and he quickly learned to jostle free packs of smokes from vending machines.      

Patterson never drowned himself with drinking or drugs. But he estimates he smoked at least a pack a day as a kid  -- more later on -- to calm his nerves. "I was putting stress in the bank, but I didn't realize I was going to get a big return on it all at once," he said.   

Cigarette use has declined in Alaska and nationwide in recent decades, but it's still rife among American Indians and Alaska Natives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in three smoke, more than any other group.

Patterson quit smoking five years ago when he woke up one morning and could barely breathe. By then, both lungs had collapsed at different times, forcing doctors to pump in air to keep him alive. He'd been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Surgeons have cut away the tops of his lungs so the healthier bottom could expand, and scarred his lungs to his chest cavity so they could no longer deflate. Still, they're only 40 percent useful, and walking leaves him short of breath. He could die if the flu infects what's left of his lungs or an exacerbation attack cuts off his breath, as it almost did a few years ago.

Patterson said his life's value has grown the closer he's come to death. A few years ago, he started volunteering to tell his story to Juneau schoolchildren in an effort to stop young people from smoking. He started helping at the local Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance. A woman there convinced him to volunteer as a voice for the CDC campaign. The agency snatched him up along with 20 others around the nation.  

Now, Patterson's hoping to draw out his life as long as he can.

"I have an opportunity to share my heart and soul with millions of people. Just let me get this out there and touch enough lives to make my life worth it in the end," he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com