Around Danville: Climb San Francisco stairs to fight lung disease

(March 27, 2012)

Back before best friends forever were called BFFs, my best friend was Joanne Dimmett.

We met on the bus on the first day of junior high school when we were 11, and from then on we were inseparable. We did homework together, had sleepovers every week, wrote letters to each other pretending to be actresses or heiresses and spent long hours on the phone (to the chagrin of my family members who might be expecting a call back in the days before call-waiting or cell phones). When I got married, Joanne was my maid of honor, and we stayed in touch over the years and decades, through raising our children, divorces and deaths.

Joanne had been short of breath, so I flew to San Diego and was with her when the doctor told her that her lung cancer was too advanced and there was nothing more they could do. It felt surreal, like we were in a scene from one of our fictional letters of yesteryear. Less than a year later, she passed away at age 53.

According to Jenny Bard of the American Lung Association in California, lung disease is the third leading cause of death in America and is the nation's leading cause of cancer death. Ninety percent of Californians live in areas with unhealthy air, contributing to breathing problems for the nearly 5 million citizens afflicted with asthma in our state.

To raise funds and awareness for healthy lungs and air, the American Lung Association in California is hosting its Sixth Annual Fight for Air Climb on Saturday at San Francisco's old Bank of America building, 555 California St. Cheri Eplin, of Danville, will climb the 1,197 stairs for the third year in a row in memory of her mother, Sue Eplin, also of Danville, who died at age 69 from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) on Jan. 8, 2010. Cheri, a fifth-grade teacher at Greenbrook Elementary School in Danville, has lived in Danville for seven years. She has two children: Blake, 16, a sophomore at San Ramon Valley High School, and Jonathan, age 9.

"If my mom had known at 21 how she would die, I wonder if she would have quit smoking. She had such an amazing spirit," Cheri said. "She never complained, but her decline was pretty rapid."

On the day of the climb, Cheri's dad, Tom, will turn 74. He and Sue were married 52 years.

"On my first climb, I panicked at floor 3 and couldn't believe I had 49 more flights to climb," Cheri said. "It took me 30 minutes that first year, and I improved to 22 minutes last year. This year I'm going for at least 20." Each year she's been joined in the climb by her niece, Morgan Eplin, 22, and Angela Bullard, of Danville, a close family friend. Team Eplin will have 14 or 15 participants in the 2012 climb, she said, including various family members and friends.

Bullard is a cardiopulmonary nurse at John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek and was a room mother for Cheri when her mom was first diagnosed with COPD. She served as Sue's nurse during a couple of hospital visits and remained in constant contact with the Eplin family throughout Sue's ordeal. "Angela was instrumental in getting our family through it," said Cheri. "She was an absolute saving grace, a true angel, and she's still there for my family."

Silicon Valley Mercury News