Zephyr Valve Emphysema Treatment Helps Patients Breathe Easier
Brenda Clayton's retirement wasn't shaping up the way she'd hoped. The 71-year-old from Suffolk, Va., had looked forward to gardening, volunteering in her community and spending time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But emphysema made it so hard to breathe that she couldn't do the things she wanted to do.
"I was existing, but it wasn't much of a life," says Clayton.
Emphysema is a lung disease that damages the air sacs in the lungs. As Clayton's breathing worsened year by year, she was desperate to find a solution. That's when she found Mary S. Baker, M.D., a pulmonologist (lung specialist) at Sentara Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Specialists in Norfolk.
During a minimally invasive procedure, Dr. Baker implanted devices called endobronchial valves into Clayton's right lung. It made a world of difference in her ability to breathe. "Just a few months after the procedure, I'm a new person," she says. "I have a new life."
The Toll of Emphysema
Clayton's breathing problems developed gradually. "I started smoking at 18, back when we knew nothing about what smoking did to your lungs," she recalls. In 2011, she was hospitalized for bronchitis and diagnosed with emphysema. She quit smoking, but the disease continued to progress over the next 10 years.
"I used to love gardening and tending my yard. But my breathing got so bad that I couldn't even walk to the mailbox in front of my house, let alone work in the garden," she says. "I knew I couldn't live the rest of my life like this."
At her doctor's recommendation, Clayton participated in respiratory therapy to reduce her symptoms. But it didn't make much difference. Searching online for help, she came across an article about Zephyr valves, which help some patients with emphysema breathe more easily.
Her doctor referred her to Dr. Baker, who is experienced in placing the valves in patients' lungs. "She did some testing and determined I was a good candidate," Clayton says. She had the procedure on May 4, 2021. "On May 5, I was a new person," she says.
Zephyr Valves Take the Pressure Off
Zephyr valves are a good option for people with a certain type of emphysema, Dr. Baker explains. In those people, the airways collapse when they exhale. Air gets trapped in parts of the lungs, putting pressure on the diaphragm and making it difficult to breathe. In the past, the only treatment for the problem was a lung transplant. Zephyr valves offer a much less drastic alternative.
During the procedure, Dr. Baker placed several tiny valves into Clayton's airways. The one-way valves let the trapped air out. That allows healthier parts of the lung to expand, taking pressure off the diaphragm, Dr. Baker explains. "Patients can breathe more easily, and their quality of life improves."
No incision is necessary in this minimally invasive procedure. Dr. Baker uses a bronchoscope, a narrow tube inserted through the nose or mouth, to place the valves. Recovery from minimally invasive procedures is typically shorter and easier compared to traditional surgeries.
After the Zephyr procedure, it can sometimes take a month or so to start breathing more easily. But in Clayton's case, the improvement was immediate. "I woke up and could feel such a difference," she says. "The only thing I felt was a sore throat. And the improvement I felt in my breathing was worth all the sore throats in the world."
Are You a Candidate for Zephyr Valves?
Zephyr valves can make a big difference for people with certain types of emphysema. But not everyone with breathing problems is a good candidate.
Dr. Baker says the procedure might be a good option if you:
- Have quit smoking
- Aren't improving with respiratory therapy and medications
- Have been diagnosed with emphysema
However, Zephyr valves are not the right treatment option if you have chronic bronchitis, another type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
"Retirement should be a time to have fun. After this treatment, many patients can do the things they want to do-gardening, biking, chasing grandkids," Dr. Baker says. "Most of my patients who have this procedure experience a profound improvement in their quality of life."
If you're having trouble breathing, our lung specialists can help. Call 757-261-5977 to schedule an appointment with the experts at Sentara Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Specialists in Norfolk, Va.
By: Mary Baker, M.D.