Vet hopes to help others quit smoking
TULSA — When they put him on a heart transplant list, doctors gave Brian Hayden a pager that would let him know to come straight to a hospital as soon as an organ became available. But he kept the pager less than 24 hours.
Doctors took it back after they found nicotine in a blood sample.
“I was going to die without a transplant,” Hayden says. “And I still couldn’t quit smoking. I was that addicted.”
He started when he was just 6 years old, sneaking cigarettes from his parents, who were such chain smokers themselves that they didn’t notice the smell on a little boy’s clothing. By middle school, he was smoking a pack a day and couldn’t hide the habit anymore.
“My parents didn’t like it,” he says, “but in the mid ‘60s, it wasn’t such a big deal. Smoking was normal.”
An Air Force career made smoking seem even more natural, with military personnel far more likely to smoke than civilians.
In 1989, He suffered his first heart attack as a 35-year-old master sergeant, and the Air Force gave him a medical discharge in 1990. But he kept smoking.
He spent the next 15 years in and out of hospitals with worsening heart failure. And by 2005, he was completely unable to work. But he kept smoking.
After being taken off the transplant list in 2007, he spent three weeks in hospice, literally waiting to die.
But still, he kept smoking.
“A year passed and I was still alive,” Hayden says. “I thought, ‘If I am not going to die, I better give myself a chance to live.’ So I quit smoking — for good.”
But it wasn’t easy. Hayden completed cessation classes, took medications and learned deep-breathing techniques to fight off cravings.
“I made a commitment,” he says. “’And to quit, that’s what you have to do. Commit.”
Now in his 60s and living in suburban San Antonio, Texas, Hayden is staring in an antismoking TV ad that will appear nationally through October. He appeared in Tulsa on Tuesday as part of a publicity tour that’s focusing especially on veterans and military personnel.
In Oklahoma, roughly 1 out of 5 adults smoke, but the number jumps to nearly 1 out of 3 among people with military backgrounds, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s especially damaging for active-duty military,” said Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, “as tobacco use hurts physical fitness and endurance.”
Smoking rates have fallen sharply in Oklahoma in recent years as fewer young people take up the habit. As recently as 2005, Oklahoma had one of the highest teen smoking rates in the country, with nearly 1 out of 3 high school students using cigarettes. But by 2015, the most recent year with available data, the high school smoking rate had dropped to only 13 percent, according to a recent State of the State’s Health Report.
Hayden, who finally received a heart transplant in 2012, is happy to report that none of his children or grandchildren smoke, breaking the generational cycle that got him hooked.
“They saw grandpa in the hospital too often,” he says, “and didn’t want anything to do with it.”