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January 15, 2014

Smiths’ deaths caused by ARDS

Son remembers his parents by raising disease awareness

CORBIN — By Jeff Noble, Staff Writer

A Knox County mother and father are placed on life support at a southeastern Kentucky hospital. Then they’re flown to a Tennessee medical center, where they are diagnosed with the same disease.

The mother,  Marilyn Hurley Smith, dies on Jan. 7. She was 50.

Four days later, her husband, Dorman Smith, would also pass away. He was 64.

Both died from ARDS — Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

Their son, Eric Smith, was there during those final days. Now, he wants to bring awareness to others about the disease that claimed his parents’ lives.

“When I got to the University of Tennessee hospital in Knoxville, I found out they had ARDS. I felt a lot of confusion, because I’d never heard of it. I found out it has to do with the respiratory system, and because there’s so much fluid in the lungs and there’s lung inflammation, I knew something was very wrong at that moment,” Eric Smith said.

According to the ARDS Foundation’s website at www.ardsusa.org, ARDS is defined as an acute process, resulting in moderate to severe loss of lung function.

“It normally occurs in people who have other respiratory problems, like COPD, or emphysema or pneumonia. The fact is that the symptoms are similar to pneumonia, bronchitis or the flu,” Knox County Health Department Director Susan Liford said. “You may get a fever, shortness of breath, or cough, or feel tired. Those symptoms can go into ARDS because of the fact the lungs can be overtaxed, or not getting enough air from the bloodstream. I think of the lungs like an accordion, because they expand and deflate. But when you have ARDS, they lose that ability to expand and they get stiff, and the person feels like they’re just smothering.”

The nursing administrator of the Laurel County Health Department, Rinda Vanderhoff, added, “They have a really hard time breathing. The main symptom is shortness of breath. If they already have COPD, or asthma, or some type of lung ailment, it does complicate matters.”

Tamara Phelps, with the Whitley County Health Department’s office in Corbin, noted there were no ARDS cases in Whitley County that they were aware of.

“Basically, it starts out as a small infection and lung inflammation. It usually decreases the oxygenation in the blood. Both my mom and dad had the flu, but ARDS was more of a factor in their deaths,” said Eric Smith, who is 24 years old, and stayed with his parents at their home in the Cannon community of Knox County.

Eric noticed the problems when his parents were taken to Pineville Community Hospital last month.

“My dad had pneumonia and started developing the flu. My mom had bronchitis and a double ear infection. Mom and Dad were in there for about a week in Pineville, in late December before it got to the point that they needed more attentive care,” he said.

When that became apparent, the decision was made at the Pineville hospital to send both of them to Knoxville.

“In Pineville, they were placed on life-support hours before they were flown out to UT Hospital. They were flown in two separate helicopter flights three days apart during the last week of December,” said Eric.

During that period and into the first part of January, he was in Knoxville, staying with his parents at the hospital during much of the time. At night, he slept on the couch at the house of a friend.

New Year’s Day 2014 was Dorman and Marilyn’s 32nd wedding anniversary.

Both were in the hospital that day. So was their son.

“I made them two homemade anniversary cards. On the day of their anniversary, they were in a medically-induced coma,” Eric Smith remembered.

A week later, he got a call from the hospital. The news wasn’t good.

“They called the family in last Tuesday, saying that my mom would pass away first. But my dad died first. After he died, I stayed in Knoxville until Wednesday night, when I returned to take care of funeral arrangements in Barbourville. Then on Thursday, I got a call around 5 a.m. from UT Hospital. They said I needed to be there. I went back up to Knoxville and stayed with my mom until she died Friday,” said Eric Smith, who also has a 5-year-old stepbrother.

Thinking back about their lives, Eric Smith recalled his parents were folks who were filled with living.

His dad, Dorman Smith, had a nickname everyone called him — “The Cincinnati Kid.”

“He was a trucker all of his life. That nickname was his CB Radio handle. But he never lived in Cincinnati. My dad never met a stranger. He was always cheerful and brought joy to people. My mom was the same way. Joyous, caring, loved children. Just a genuine person. Together they were always in love with each other. They both said they couldn’t live without each other,” Eric Smith said.

The ARDS Foundation pointed out new causes of the disease are being reported. So far, more than 60 different causes have been identified. There are other lung conditions that can mimic ARDS, which the foundation says can often be a challenge for doctors. Among them are pneumonia and congestive heart disease.

No specific therapy exists to treat ARDS at this time. The treatment is mainly supportive care in the intensive care unit, with many of the patients requiring mechanical ventilation and oxygen therapy.

In the United States, there’s about 150,000 cases reported yearly, according to the ARDS Foundation.

Eric Smith added more than two million people have it worldwide.

“It is more common than breast cancer. There’s no cure. If it goes untreated, 90 percent of those who have it die. With treatment, the mortality rate is still very, very high. My concern is about getting the survival rate up, and let people know about ARDS, so they’ll never have to suffer the way I did when I lost my mom and dad. I’m talking about this to raise awareness about ARDS. I want to get more medical research done on this because there are no new treatments, and to help raise funds completely for medical research,” he said.

A joint funeral service for Dorman and Marilyn Smith will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Knox Funeral Home in Barbourville. After the service, the couple will be buried in the Carnes Cemetery at Turkey Creek.

Eric Smith said he will be a pallbearer at the service.

“I was there for every last moment for both of them. I told them I would be there every step of the way. Being a pallbearer’s my way of honoring them to the highest degree. I’ll always be by their side,” he said.

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