Deb Wells is no stranger to adversity, considering her long personal history with stroke and heart disease. A self-proclaimed "Type A workaholic, " Deb was caught by surprise when she suffered a stroke while on a business trip with her husband in Maui in 1998. Seven years following the stroke, she was finally diagnosed with sick sinus syndrome, and has since had two pacemakers implanted. Deb Wells is grateful every day to be alive and shares her personal story often as a You’re the Cure advocate. Today, however, Wells has another story to share. This time her family's.
Deb's parents came from a generation "where everyone smoked everywhere". Subsequently, both were smokers and Deb was exposed daily--even in their family-run restaurant where patrons and employees smoked freely.
Growing up in rural Washington, Illinois, Deb had an understanding of the harmful effects of tobacco and always had a strong aversion to it. However, it was not until she contrasted her experiences at home with her first apartment in college that she realized the stark difference. On visits home she was reminded of the stifling air and it was disturbing to see her parents addicted and dependent on their cigarettes. The visits home became more difficult as Deb struggled with the constant exposure to cigarette smoke.
In August 1990, Deb received word that her mother was in the hospital with Stage 4 lung cancer. Just five weeks after diagnosis she passed away. Deb was 35, her mother just 55. One life cut short and the other left to move on without her "best friend" and greatest support. Her Grandfather died from emphysema in 1986. Deb's father died at age 54 from Kidney & Liver cancer associated with smoking in 1989, and her brother at age 44 also died of lung cancer in 2004. In the span of time, smoking took four members of her immediate family.
The lesson Deb remembers most from the months and years of therapy that followed her own stroke is that dependence is difficult. It was hard to be dependent on others for everything—even as simple a task as getting dressed. Smoking led to chronic disease in both her parents, a sibling, and left them reliant on others for basic care. In the months and years before their deaths they became increasingly dependent on others to take care of them and were unable to care for their families. "We want freedom to do what we want to do. But when we jeopardize our health, we jeopardize our freedom."
"Smoking causes cancer. It is fact." Sadly, most youth cannot conceptualize this for themselves, believing "they are invincible."
Three of Deb's five siblings began smoking in high school, and it has been difficult for Deb to watch them suffer the physical toll of tobacco on their bodies and the emotional toll of dependence and failed quit attempts. When her brothers and sister made the choice to smoke as teenagers, they did not understand the impact it would have.
Deb believes it is our task and responsibility to educate youth thoroughly on smoking and tobacco use. Our young people need to understand "when one desires a long life ahead one must to think about what consequences result from today’s actions."
The message Wells hopes to offer in sharing her family's story is that "we are part of a community that has a responsibility to our community's health." Whether within in our own families or communities at large we must "make smart choices" for our health. "We must take care of our bodies not only for ourselves, but for those we love."
Help prevent the toll of tobacco use in Washington, DC. Click here to tell your Councilmembers that you support raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 and other policies to keep tobacco away from kids.
Deb says, "Thanks for your support!"
<Special thanks to Madeleine Homer for help crafting this advocate story>