Former Glenwood Springs resident Jim Nelson, retired accountant, author of 13 books and occasional Doc Holliday impersonator back in the day, has a new life as a straight-laced marathon runner in his mid-30s these days.
At least his lungs do.
“That was part of my miracle,” said the 73-year-old Nelson in a telephone interview from his Tucson, Ariz., home on Tuesday.
After Nelson was diagnosed in 1995 with severe Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or lung disease, he and wife Mary Nelson eventually had to pack up about eight years ago and move from Glenwood Springs to lower altitude and warmer climes so he could breathe more easily.
Nelson’s condition ultimately led to the need for a double lung transplant in late 2011.
His donor ended up being a 32-year-old, clean-cut Mormon who had run several marathons, but died as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident.
“So, I ended up with what you would consider the perfect set of lungs,” Nelson said.
Today, the Nelsons are both busy helping to raise awareness about lung disease and offering support for families dealing with the disease as volunteer representatives for the National COPD Foundation and the American Lung Association.
“One of the biggest problems with lung disease is awareness,” Jim Nelson said. “Roughly 25 million to 30 million Americans have COPD, but only about half of them have been diagnosed.”
Nelson himself was shocked to be told by doctors at the VA Hospital in Grand Junction, after a bout with pneumonia at age 55, that he had Stage 3 COPD. In retrospect, though, with his background, it shouldn’t have been too big a surprise, he said.
“I was born a month premature, so my lungs were never fully developed,” he said. “My dad was a heavy smoker, and my mom, who didn’t smoke, was exposed to a lot of second-hand smoke including when she was pregnant with me.”
Nelson grew up around that same second-hand smoke from his dad, and began smoking himself when he was 15, “because that’s what all the cool kids did in those days.”
He proceeded to smoke for 20 years until, after his first bout with pneumonia at only 35, he had a vision of himself shuffling down the street pulling an oxygen tank.
“So, I quit smoking and continued on with my life, wandering the mountains of Colorado,” Nelson said.
He thought he’d made his lifestyle change early enough to avoid problems later in life.
“It just took 20 years for it to advance to the point that my case was severe,” Nelson said. “This is one of the problems with lung disease, and why we’re trying to increase awareness.
“It’s a disease that comes on fairly gradually, so you don’t really notice and you tend to adapt,” he said.
The first several years after his diagnosis were spent with the typical medication and oxygen routine.
“Without a double lung transplant, I would likely be dead now,” Nelson said.
He was able to live in Arizona without oxygen for about two years but was back on full-time oxygen just before the transplant.
Just before his operation, he became involved as a volunteer with the area chapter of the American Lung Association (ALA). After he obtained his new set of lungs, he began devoting much of his time to working with the Arizona COPD Coalition, teaching classes on living with lung disease.
Mary Nelson, who had been involved with numerous organizations while living in Glenwood Springs, including volunteering as a hospice caregiver, attended one of those classes.
“On the way home, she suggested we come up with a combined program for not only the patients but their families and caregivers as well,” Nelson said.
They approached the ALA with their idea, and have since been teaching the program all over Arizona. Two years ago, they were designated as the state “advocacy captains” for the COPD Foundation, working to share their experiences as patient and caregiver and raising awareness about the disease.
The Nelsons also work with state and federal legislators on various bills that could benefit COPD patients, and they’re part of an international online support group called EFFORTS.
Being an author, Jim has also penned numerous articles on the topic for various publications.
“We encourage people who have been diagnosed to learn as much as they can about the disease, and to find a good pulmonologist who is knowledgable about lung disease,” he said.
And most important for COPD patients is to continue to exercise, he said.
“Exercise is absolutely essential, but it’s one of the things that is really tough, because as lungs deteriorate it becomes harder to exercise and people shy away from it,” Nelson said. “But it’s vital to keep the rest of your body strong to compensate for fact that you have wimpy lungs.”
Nelson is proud that he has worn out three treadmills since he was first diagnosed.
“I exercised an hour a day, even when I was on oxygen,” he said.
The Nelsons are joint recipients of the ALA Chairman’s Award for their volunteer efforts, and in January of last year were named the volunteers of the month for the organization.
While living in Glenwood Springs, the Nelsons were named “Best Couple” and “Best Accountant” for five years running in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent’s Local’s Choice Awards. They were also grand marshals of the Strawberry Days Parade in 2007.
Jim is also the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including several Glenwood Springs history books and his most recent, “Tombstone - A Quick History.”