Gwen Hannan of Bennington is among those being honored by the American Lung Association. (Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner/photos.benningtonbanner.com)
Gwen Hannan of Bennington is among those being honored by the American Lung Association. (Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner/photos.benningtonbanner.com)

BENNINGTON -- The American Lung Association is honoring four Bennington-area residents who have contributed work toward lung health at the annual Fight for Air Climb at the historic Bennington Battle Monument on Saturday, June 7.

The four "climb heroes" have helped to raise awareness on a variety of lung health issues through community outreach and leading by example.

"They show a wide range of experiences that deal with lung health," said Kiah Morris, Bennington County Regional Commission for ALA. "We are trying to do a range of work to focus on locals who work with more than just lung cancer We are trying to take away the stigma of lung cancer and lung disease that it's ‘your fault' for using tobacco.

Judy Brownell, former owner of Curves in Bennington, is among those being honored by the American Lung Association. (Supplied photo)
Judy Brownell, former owner of Curves in Bennington, is among those being honored by the American Lung Association. (Supplied photo)
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Morris said people suffer from poor lung health that have never touched a cigarette in their life. The funds raised by the annual climb go to support local research and programs that "help people breathe." Morris said it's important to note the contributions made by people locally, because the work they have done does not blame the victim, but promotes lung health and healthy living in general.

Judy Brownell of Eagle Bridge, N.Y., and Gwen Hannan of Bennington are two of the women being recognized as climb heroes. Kathy Carrier and Jordyn Upright of Bennington are the other two climb heroes.

Brownell

Brownell, former owner of Curves Fitness, sold the business to manage her own battle with stage-three Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Cardiac Disease due to a past history of smoking. Morris said she was selected for her involvement with the climb in previous years and for her advocacy for lung health, physical fitness and clean air.

"I have tried to take all of the steps to live a lifestyle as healthy as I can, to overcome a lot of the stigma of this disease, and to try to have the best quality of life I can have," Brownell said.

Brownell is a likely candidate for a double-lung transplant, and is one of very few people diagnosed with COPD who is not on oxygen full time. She said that since she has left Curves, she has had more time to focus on her own health and exercise regularly.

Brownell said she feels blessed to have children and her husband, Jeff Brownell, to give her a strong support system. "Lung disease is different for everybody: It affects people differently and I believe that your attitude makes a huge difference," she said.

Brownell said there is a stigma associated with COPD. "The first thing people ask me when I tell them is ‘did you smoke?' They don't say, ‘how are you doing?' Or ‘is there anything I can do to help you?' there are a lot of other ways to get COPD other than smoking."

Brownell supported activities for National Smoke-Out Day, supported programs for girl students to get more exercise and worked with Mount Anthony Union High School to promote smoking cessation during her time at Curves. In previous years, Brownell's Curves Bennington climb team held the record for the highest fundraising team and the largest number of participants who have climbed in her honor, even though she couldn't herself.

Hannan

Gwen Hannan is a retired nurse and former smoker who served as the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center tobacco cessation specialist and educator for 23 years. Morris said Hannan is being honored due to her long career helping people who suffer from lung cancer and disease, whether or not they were able to quit smoking.

In 1999, the tobacco master settlement agreement was reached between the four major tobacco companies and the attorney general of 46 states, in which each state was allotted a lump sum of money to go toward tobacco education, cessation and disease research. Vermont created 14 tobacco treatment specialists for the 14 major hospitals with part of that money, of which Hannan was one.

During her time at SVMC, Hannan was a strong advocate for smoke-free spaces, tobacco prevention and helped thousands of local residents on their paths to quitting.

"One doctor, when he found out I was retiring, said ‘Gwen: What are you thinking? Do you know how many lives you've saved?' And I hadn't even thought about it. To this day, I see people in the grocery store or in the street that tell me they have finally been able to quit."

Hannan was a smoker on and off for most of her life. She said her deep understanding of the nature of addiction gave her the knowledge necessary to help people fight it. Hannan worked inpatient at SVMC with individuals battling lung cancer or disease, many of whom were still smokers. "I made rounds and introduced myself. The major asset was that I am a former smoker, and I knew what they were going through."

Now that Hannan is retired, she said she is happy to spend some more time to herself, but that she feels honored to come to the climb on June 7 and to be recognized as contributing much of her life to lung health.

In addition to the four climb heroes, the ALA is recognizing Vermont Rep. Patti Komline, R-Bennington-Rutland-1, at the climb for introducing House Bill 217, which bans smoking in vehicles in the presence of children under 8 years old. That bill passed 100 to 35, and will become state law July 1.

People can register for the Fight for Air Climb up until the morning of the event at 9 a.m. on June 7 as individuals or on a team, as walkers or runners. To register, email vtclimb@LungNE.org. There will be registration applications available at the practice climb on Sunday, June 1, at 10 a.m.

Contact Tom Momberg at tmomberg@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg