Lifelong coal miner David A. Lucas breathes into the plastic tube attached to a computerized machine in a small room in Blue Mountain Health System's Gnaden Huetten campus. The machine assesses Lucas' ability to breathe.
Lucas, of Hegins, has Black Lung disease, caused by inhaling coal dust. The dust builds up, hardening and scarring the lungs. It can trigger other health problems, including heart failure.
Lucas comes to Gnaden Huetten's Black Lung Clinic - one of only three in Pennsylvania - once a year or so to have breathing tests, chest X-rays, lab work, an electrocardiogram.
"I started in around the mines when I was 9 years old," he says, his voice rough and his breath short, his words punctuated by deep coughs. Now 59, Lucas retired about three years ago. "That's all I did all my life was work in the coal mines. When I think about all the times I worked double shifts and triple shifts in my time - and I worked seven days a week - at my age, I've got to live another 20 years and then some to see as much day as I've seen dark in my life time," he said.
Lucas worked "beside my Dad" in "bootleg" mines - small, independently owned coal mines. His son also worked the mines until Lucas encouraged him to go into a safer line of work. His son is a now a welder.
"I'm proud as a peacock to have been a coal miner all my life," he says.
On Tuesday, Lucas and Gnaden Huetten's program were the subject of a photo shoot by "ADVANCE for Respiratory, Sleep Medicine," a nationally distributed magazine for professionals in pulmonology, respiratory care and sleep. The photographs will illustrate the magazine's October cover story by staff writer Michael Gibbons about coal miners dealing with the effects of black lung, and the rates of younger miners being diagnosed sooner then their older, some now retired miners.
The Black Lung program opened in October, 2003. Gnaden Huetten was chosen by the Pennsylvania Black Lung Coalition, Altoona, as one of three sites - the others are in Altoona, Blair County, and Windber, Somerset County. It receives about $56,000 a year in federal grant money to operate.
"The magazine article focuses on the plight of miners who have Black Lung, and their need for treatment. Since there are only three programs in the entire state, many miners travel quite a distance for treatment through this program," said BMHS spokeswoman Lisa Johnson. "We are it for northeastern Pennsylvania. Mr. Lucas credits our program with saving his life. He has always expressed how needed these programs are for miners."
Black Lung, which began decades ago to clog his lungs and constrict his ability to breathe, is taking its toll on Lucas. "For the past two years, I've had no appetite and I was throwing up every day of the week and I was swollen in my stomach," he says.
He started at Gnaden Huetten's Black Lung Clinic about a year ago. He was prescribed inhalers and medication that are helping him to breathe. "They treat me with respect out here," he says. "I'm not all stressed out."
The machine he breathes into "measures his lung volumes, his lung functions," says Patient Care Coordinator Michele Cinicola. "It gives us numbers that the doctor will look at and use to diagnose lung problems."
After Lucas undergoes his annual tests, he sees pulmonologist Dr. Richard Rothfleisch. "He'll go over all the test results and discuss them with the patient. He'll order further testing if needed, and any medications that might be needed."
Black Lung, Cinicola said, "is a debilitating disease. You can't do anything to make it better, but you can help with the symptoms."