Milwaukee VA Medical Center
TeleQuit helps Veteran kick smoking habit
Van, a U.S. Army Veteran, has kicked some serious addictions in his life, including drugs and alcohol, but the peskiest one has been smoking.
But thanks to his commitment to VA medical treatment and the use of telehealth technology, he hasn’t had a cigarette in eight months.
“I don’t want to go back there,” said Van, who asked that his last name not be used. “Everything is all right now. The VA is helping me out.”
The Milwaukee resident agreed to share his story as part of the Great American Smokeout, set for Nov. 19. The annual promotion asks smokers to quit at least for the one day, and to seek help in kicking the habit permanently.
Unlike most longtime smokers who start in junior high school, Van didn’t start smoking until he was 32 and in the Army.
He was a sergeant, and sometimes the stress of leading new recruits became overwhelming. When he saw a fellow sergeant light up to take the edge off, he asked for a cigarette.
“It was a strong cigarette, but I did feel a little loose. It did relax me,” he said.
After leaving the Army, he returned to an environment where alcohol and drugs were prevalent, along with cigarettes
It wasn’t long before he was smoking two packs a day.
When the painful coughing started, he sought help through VA, and actually quit for 100 days. But it didn’t stick.
“I was feeling good, but I was hanging around friends, and everybody had a cigarette. And before I knew it, I had a cigarette in my hands again.”
The roller coaster continued for years, as he would quit for a while but always go back.
“I went back to the VA eight or nine times,” he said. “I tried everything.”
Meanwhile, he suffered a seizure related to abuse of drugs and alcohol and wound up with a dislocated shoulder. With VA’s help, he was able to stop the drinking and drugs, but the smoking lingered.
The reckoning came this year, when Van decided that Lent, and its 40 days of penance, would be the catalyst.
“Starting on Ash Wednesday, I did not smoke for a couple of days,” he said. “But I was at the mall and found a cigarette butt in the pocket of my coat. I smoked that butt, and when I got home, I was coughing.”
Van was fearful that he had caught COVID-19 – what he refers to as “the germ.”
“I was sick and started coughing up the tar out of my lungs,” he said, noting that he didn’t go to a hospital because of the pandemic. “So I just dealt with it.”
Van got connected with registered nurse Valerie Sletto, who enrolled him in TeleQuit, a telehealth program specifically designed to help smokers quit.
Participants in TeleQuit log in nearly every day and answer a series of questions. There’s also an accompanying workbook.
The program typically last three to six months, and the data compiled along the way is used to assess next steps, Sletto said.
“We've had some real success stories (with TeleQuit). I had one Veteran who quit within two weeks.” Registered Nurse Valerie Sletto
The primary health care provider is kept abreast of the results, and nurses will step up their interaction when warranted.
In Van’s case, Sletto said he asked her to call him once a week to help keep him on track.
“We’ve had some real success stories (with TeleQuit),” Sletto said, noting that the program is often one facet of a bigger plan that could include counseling and medication. “I had one Veteran who quit within two weeks.”
Like any health care plan, quitting smoking takes commitment from the patient, and sometimes other life factors thwart the desired outcomes.
“There’s a multitude of factors in why people smoke,” Sletto said. “We provide support and a way to work on tobacco cessation in a non-judgmental way,” she said.
“We realize this is a stepping stone. This may be their first attempt at quitting smoking or sixth attempt. We are taking them where they are at and working with them to support them.”
Rita Mingesz, Health Promotion Disease Prevention Manager for the Milwaukee VA, noted that the Centers for Disease Control says “cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the U.S., putting it in first place for top preventable cause of death.”
“People generally understand that smoking causes lung and cardiovascular disease, but many don’t realize that it can also harm body organs,” she said. “Quitting smoking is the single most important thing Veterans can do to live longer and healthier lives.”
While the pandemic has made telehealth programs essential parts of health care, Sletto noted that TeleQuit program has been available for at least a decade.
“We’re kind of the best-kept secret,” Sletto said. “It’s just a wonderful program.”
And it has worked for Van, who advises anyone looking to stop smoking to take it slowly.
“Break off a little piece at a time,” he said, noting the new year or Lent could be a good jumping off point.
“I started with 40 days, like Jesus said,” he said. “If you can make it 40 days, you can make it another 40 days.”
And now, he’s at eight months smoke-free.
“I’m OK,” he said. “Fresh air is what you need.”
Ready to quit?
To learn more about ways to quit smoking, Veterans should contact their primary care provider or call the National Quit Line at 1-855-QUIT-VET (1-855-784-8838).
- VHA tobacco cessation resources:
- SmokefreeVET: Text the word ‘VET’ to 47848 from your mobile phone or visit Smokefree.gov/VETfor the SmokefreeVET text messaging system. For Spanish, text VETesp to 47848 or visit www.smokefree.gov/VETespanol.
- Veterans Health Library: https://www.veteranshealthlibrary.va.gov/
- Stay Quit Coach—a free mobile app to support quitting smoking and staying quit. Available at: https://mobilehealth.va.gov/app/stay-quit-coach