When Dennis Holt quit smoking in 1996, and was healthy for a few years after that, he figured he got lucky.
"I thought, 'Jesus! I'm going to get away with it,'" he said over coffee at Cafe Plymouth in Brooklyn Heights.
But Holt was diagnosed with emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in 2004. Yet he still considers himself lucky. With the help of Dr. Peter Smith at , now SUNY Downstate, Holt began treatment for the disease. And while some people respond well to the medication, and can live fruitful lives with the disease, many others do not.
The medicine worked on Holt, who will be 77 in a couple of weeks.
"My [emphysema] is being treated, but you can never cure it," Holt said.
November is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) awareness month. And while COPD used to be considered a "death sentence," according to Zipporah Dvash, Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs and Development at LICH, Holt is an example of how people living with the disease can lead healthy, happy lives.
Originally from Kansas, Holt moved to Boerum Hill with his wife 40 years ago, and he still lives there with his wife and son. He raised two children in the neighborhood, which he says has gotten exponentially better over the years. When he first moved in, he was robbed, he said.
"We had a break in, and when the cop showed up he said, "What are people like you doing in a place like this?' I said 'We're crazy.'"
But Holt's decision to live, and remain, in Boerum Hill was actually prescient. The neighborhood is now .
Holt came to the Brooklyn Eagle in 1994, and before that wrote for the now-defunct Brooklyn Phoenix newspaper. He writes a column, and if he had a "beat" it would be economic development, he said. Holt has been covering the resurgence of Downtown Brooklyn "since the beginning." And while he has seen the ups and downs, he says the community is in a unique position to "hold it [development] in check."
"There is no reason for a 15-story apartment building on every corner. That's where the community needs to organize, not against development, just for proper development," he said.
Holt says the hardest part about living with emphysema is learning how to live with it. It's hard to talk continuously for long periods of time and to walk up stairs. He had to teach himself what the rest of us do automatically: to take oxygen into his lungs.
"You have to learn to breathe again," he said. "There is nothing worse than feeling like you can't breathe."
He coughed at one point during our conversation, and there was a noticeable looseness in it.
"That's a COPD cough," he said. "I'll always have it."
And now he can't walk fast anymore, something many New Yorkers pride themselves on.
"The reason I hate the winter is walking slowly is no fun in the winter."
Even though smoking is what caused Holt's emphysema, he says he is not a "crusader," and doesn't lecture people who choose to smoke. If someone asks for his opinion, he'll give it, but Holt says he feels worse for people who get COPD and don't smoke.
"Life is very much a roll of the dice," he said. "And it's hard to load the dice."
To maintain his health, Holt has check-up's three times a year. He thanks Dr. Smith and LICH, and says he is relieved .
"The whole LICH saga was more than a passing interest for me," he said.
Holt says he misses the way his voice used to sound, before the disease. But Holt is also a newspaper man, a man of the written word, which can be seen as a blessing. Even though his voice may now sound different, his words ring out as true as they always did.
"I feel lucky," he said. "I feel lucky it's not life threatening. I feel lucky that I still have my mental faculties and can write some stories that make sense."