Students at three local high schools and middle schools heard an effective new voice during the annual Red Ribbon week.
Michael Patterson, who worked as a spokesman during the Center for Disease Control and Prevention ‘s Tips From Former Smokers campaign, now travels throughout Alaska telling about his experience with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and cancer. Last week was his first time speaking on the Kenai Peninsula.
“I have a really different life right now, I am trying to maintain my breath so I can get this message to you,” Patterson said standing before Kenai Middle School’s sixth, seventh and eighth graders Wednesday in the building’s gymnasium. “It is hard to live a life where you are on the verge of suffocation all the time.”
Patterson was 44-years-old when he received his first diagnosis, which was significant to him for many reasons. It was less than a decade after he received sole custody of his first daughter and had worked through the rage and anger that haunted him since his childhood where he suffered years of abuse.
Patterson said he believed he finally had his life where he wanted it, and was told he couldn’t have it anymore. He said his biggest regret was smoking cigarettes, which he started up at 9-years-old.
After the assembly, a few students shook hands or hugged Patterson on their way out of the gymnasium. Cheyenne Juliussen was the last to do so. Patterson’s story brought back memories of her grandfather, who died in March of this year. He too had COPD and cancer. The speech was hard to listen to, but taught a good lesson, she said.
“You shouldn’t do it (smoking) because your family could lose you,” Juliussen said.
Principal Vaughn Dosko said the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District gave administrators the option for Patterson to speak at their schools. He said he viewed the content ahead of time and approved.
“Absolutely. If you affect one kid it is very much beneficial because we know what the harmful affects are from tobacco use,” Dosko said. “In middle school, the kids are so impressionable.”
Dosko brought up one subject Patterson addressed in his speech. Vaping and e-cigarettes is becoming more and more popular, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed at the middle school. During his presentation, Patterson talked about the micro-particles in vaporizers that can also physically affect bystanders.
Sixth grader Amanda Galloway, said she was really surprised to hear that anything from a vaporizer could also be harmful to people who weren’t smoking. She said she knows a family member who smokes cigars.
“I knew it was bad but not that bad,” Galloway said.
Galloway said she doesn’t want to start smoking because it makes it hard to stop.
Dosko said someone who is dealing with the detrimental effects of smoking is more relatable than a healthy person telling students not to indulge.
District Counselor Sara Moore said Patterson was brought to the local schools through a partnership with the school district and the Peninsula Smokefree Partnership.
“This year was the first time Michael has visited our district, but we have partnered other years to bring speakers to the peninsula during Red Ribbon Week,” Moore said.
In the future, Galloway said if she is offered cigarettes, her answer will be “obviously no.”
“Extend your life by staying away from tobacco in any form because there is no safe way to do poison,” Patterson said.
He suggested, for those students who know a smoker not to go home and lecture, but to tell their friend or family member the story they heard from his own mouth.