Eric Quizon was on his way to the United States when his father, comedy king Dolphy, asked him to buy a portable oxygen concentrator.
The son had suspicions. He observed that the once vibrant Dolphy had become lethargic. Aside from frequent coughs and shortness of breath, Dolphy would complain of tiredness after taking a few steps.
After bringing home the oxygen concentrator, a healthcare device, Quizon did some research. The device was for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.
“It’s a machine that would help him breathe better. He brought it along wherever he went,” recalls Quizon.
During the “Dolphy at 80” tour in the US in 2008, Quizon carried a medical certificate for the airline to allow his father to bring his oxygen concentrator.
On the third leg of the tour, Dolphy’s blood pressure went up; the comedian was scared. “In the prayers before the show, he cried, ‘Lord please help me.’ There were doctors and nurses around. We were worried. But after the applause, his BP normalized,” says Quizon.
At a family luncheon, Dolphy finally revealed his condition to his 18 children. “It was emotional for us, knowing there was no cure for the disease. There was no timeline given. He said he would just slowly deteriorate. It was difficult for us because we knew he would finally succumb to COPD,” Quizon recounts.
COPD is a progressive lung ailment that makes breathing difficult and invariably leads to death. In the Philippines, it is the seventh killer disease, while in America, it ranks third. Although smoking is the main cause, passive smokers or people who are constantly exposed to cigarette smoke are also prone.
A study on the burden of lung disease, conducted by the Philippine College of Chest Physicians and the Global Initiative of Lung Disease, shows that women in rural areas are also vulnerable from inhaling ethanol or gases from the charcoal and wood fire in their kitchens.
“Smoking and charcoal cooking emit noxious substances that inflame the lungs and the airways,” says Dr. Bernice Ong-dela Cruz, medical education head of the COPD Council and lung specialist at the Chinese General Hospital.
Once a person experiences coughing with phlegm and an unusual breathing pattern, he or she is advised to undertake a spinometry. This simple breathing test gauges how much and how quickly air moves out of the lungs. It measures the lung function in patients and determines the progression of the disease.
Dr. dela Cruz observes that patients usually come to her when they are already in the later stages of COPD. The symptoms manifest very slowly, such that people don’t realize they are sick.
“In severe cases, they need oxygen after taking a few steps or while taking a shower. There are possible complications that could affect the heart and swelling of the extremities. Some will need a wheelchair and a small oxygen tank,” she says.
Dr. Dela Cruz explains that COPD is noncontagious, treatable and partially reversible. If COPD is detected early, patients will have fewer limitations on their activity. The treatment entails pulmonary rehabilitation, a program that educates patients on caring for their lungs, and exercises to strengthen the breathing muscles. Their condition is also managed with inhalers and nebulizers to reduce the inflammation in the airways and to help them breathe normally.
Psychological support is also needed because in later stages, COPD is debilitating. “Patients get depressed because they can’t be active anymore,” she says.
Most of Dr. Dela Cruz’s COPD patients were smokers.
Dolphy was a classic example of a chain smoker who quit smoking but acquired COPD later in life.
Eric says his father was already asthmatic since childhood. The weak lungs were aggravated by Dolphy’s three packs-a-day habit.
Growing up, Quizon recalls how his father and his buddies spent days playing poker at home while smoking and drinking. The house smelled like a cigarette factory.
At age 45, Dolphy quit smoking when he was diagnosed with emphysema, a lung disease characterized by shortness of breath due to over-inflated air sacs.
More than 30 years later, Dolphy discovered he was suffering from COPD. The damage to his lungs continued to progress with age, despite his having quit smoking.
Dolphy initially requested his long-time partner Zsa Zsa Padilla to keep quiet about it so that his children wouldn’t worry. Ultimately, the children had to be informed.
At a TV network event, Dolphy, who could still do a mean dance in his later years, suddenly collapsed out of exhaustion after his number.
“The doctors said his condition wouldn’t get better. He was Stage 3 then. When we announced his condition to the family, the COPD was Stage 4. Yet he managed to live for three more years,” says Quizon.
Dolphy stubbornly refused to rest. He told his children that he would die from inactivity, not from COPD.
Quizon directed his father in “Nobody, Nobody but Juan” for the Metro Manila Film Festival in 2009. Although he looked like his normal self onscreen, he was fragile on the set.
“I made sure he was taken care of on the set. During camera rehearsals, Dad would sit while his body double played out his parts. During the take, he would do it himself,” recalls Quizon.
Dolphy asked him again to direct “Father Jejemon” for the 2011 Metro Manila Film Festival, but Quizon was adamant. He told his father that it was against doctor’s orders, and he didn’t want to be risking Dolphy’s health on the set.
“He stopped talking to me. He asked my cousin Frank Grey Jr. to direct it because he said I didn’t want to do it,” says Quizon.
Nonetheless he visited his father during the filming. By then, Dolphy was wheelchair-bound. “Somebody had to help him stand up. Once he stood up, he walked a few steps. Every 15 meters, he had difficulty breathing,” says Quizon. In the movie, Dolphy’s shortness of breath was glaring.
After the shoot, Dolphy got double pneumonia and became bedridden. His legs shook when he tried to stand up. Physical therapy sessions were futile.
At the hospital, doctors told him that he was walking a fine line between life and death. In mid-2012, Dolphy’s health would fluctuate between optimism and near-death. He caught pneumonia 13 times, the last of which, an unlucky number, became fatal.
“My dad was a fighter,” says Quizon. Dolphy died on July 10, 2012 at age 83.
Today, Quizon and his brother Epy are part of an advocacy to create awareness of COPD. The message is, it’s never too late to quit bad habits and take proper care of one’s respiratory health.