I saw Terrie first.
She was in a full-page ad in Real Simple magazine, along with the words:
After Terrie lost her voice, she found an even stronger one.
Terrie Hall, 1960-2013.
Her photo looked like something that had been photoshopped. Or like a collage that took the top half of one person’s face and matched it with the bottom half of someone else’s face. From the nose up, she was beautiful and bright-eyed, with a smooth complexion and thick, blond hair framing her face. From the nose down, she was collapsed, sunken, asymmetrical.
I stared at her for a good, long time before shifting my eyes directly to the left on the page where there was a brief biography of her, suspending the moment of learning what happened to this woman for longer than necessary.
The small print said:
Terrie Hall started to smoke as a teenager so she would look older. In her 30’s, she found a sore in her mouth…and found cancer. Eventually, she would have her voice box removed. She would later lose her hair, her teeth, and part of her jaw. Through her pain, through her cancers, through her treatments, she kept fighting and speaking in her raspy, mechanical voice with the Southern lilt. She used her new voice to tell people her story.
I started smoking when I was 16 because it supported the bad-girl image I was trying to achieve. I remember regularly sitting at the local coffee shop with some friends while we practiced smoking and talking at the same time. We wanted so badly to look natural. We wanted desperately to look older.
For me, smoking was never much more than that, a pastime. A five-to-seven-minute break. A satisfying secret kept from my parents (until it wasn’t, when they found the shiny gold box of Benson and Hedges in the front seat of my Chrysler New Yorker). And later, something to do while I drank.
I smoked a pack a day of Marlboro Mediums for years, until college when I spent a few winters laid up with pneumonia, and out of commission for weeks at a time. Smoking while sick felt like swallowing splintered glass. Though I muscled through for longer than is in any way sane, I finally let myself quit.
I’m not going to pretend to think it’s that easy for many others. I now smoke occasionally when I drink, but it doesn’t have the same calming, aerating effect that I’d like it to. And it tastes like a mouth full of compost.
It wasn’t until today—upon seeing Terrie—that I actually stopped to consider a different fate that could have been in store for me, had I not been blessed with persistent, wretched sickness at the most opportune of times.
I wanted to read more about her. What I found was a website—a forum, of sorts—for smokers who, like Terrie, paid a major price for their smoking habit and used their stories to impact others.
The website is part of the CDC’s “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), this campaign inspired 1.6 million Americans to try to quit. 200,000 did. 100,000 quit for good. (The fact that less than 10 percent of the people who tried to quit actually succeeded speaks volumes.)
I scrolled through one short video at a time. It was as if I was sitting in a circle with all these scarred, shattered people, who were willing to share the stories that are hardest to tell. I felt like it was my responsibility, in some way, to give them my ear and not rush through. And I was inspired to thank each of them when their stories were over.
I will share a few of the stories that struck me the deepest.
Bill, a person with diabetes, started smoking at 15, not realizing the problems it would eventually cause him and his family. He didn’t stop smoking until he was almost 40—after having had a leg amputated.
Thank you, Bill.
Brandon describes losing his foot, fingers, and other body parts to Buerger’s disease, a disorder linked to smoking, and testifies to the strength of addiction.
Thank you, Brandon.
Michael suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which makes it harder for a person to breathe and can cause death. Michael talks about how he wishes he had never started smoking, and the damage it caused to his lungs. He describes waking up one morning unable to breathe and having to go to the hospital. He also talks about the pain his condition has brought to his family.
Thank you, Michael.
Shane, whose throat cancer was a result of smoking, discusses how he didn’t realize the health complications that could result from tobacco use.
Thank you, Shane.
Terrie had cancer as a result of smoking. In a 2012 Tips From Former Smokers TV commercial, Terrie showed us how she got ready for her day. In this video, Terrie shares that the only voice her grandson ever heard was an artificial one. He was born after doctors removed her larynx. Her tip to smokers is to “make a video or recording of yourself reading a children’s storybook and singing a lullaby—before smoking affects your health.”
And thank you, Terrie. May you rest in peace knowing your voice was heard.
(For more stories, go to the CDC website “Tips From Former Smokers.” Descriptions of the people in the videos were taken directly from that website.)
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo source: Try To Stop, New Hampshire.