Vicky Walker smiles as she sits on a bench outside.
Vicky Walker smoked for 40 years and had tried quitting three times before finding great success last year with a smoking cessation program. (Aubrey Frey | Spectrum Health Beat)

For 40 years, the Walker Christmas dinner had always been followed by the whole family gathering outside for the obligatory postprandial cigarette.

But on Christmas Day 2017, there had been something different about this unspoken tradition.

Vicky Walker didn’t have a cigarette in her hand.

Sure, she joined the family outdoors to share the social moment. But she chose to stand in just such a way to avoid secondhand smoke, so that even the wind couldn’t carry smoke into her lungs.

She had made a decision. And she would not go back.

“I asked myself the question, ‘Do you want to quit?’” Walker said. “This is it. This time I was done.”

She smoked her last cigarette on Dec. 10, 2017.

‘My turn’

Walker began smoking at age 17.

Now, at 59, she has celebrated her first full, smoke-free year in about four decades.

When Walker started smoking in the 1970s, the habit had been common.

Her grandparents smoked. Her parents smoked. Her sisters, nieces and nephews all smoked.

Walker has been surrounded by lifelong smokers, so there had always been a high likelihood that, for the last 40 years, she would always smoke, too.

Until recently, in fact, she didn’t think she’d ever shed the title of smoker.

She has always lived an active life in Mecosta County, Michigan, where she enjoys hunting, fishing and helping around her family’s farm. She held jobs in assembly lines and as a dietary cook.

At home, she has served as a caregiver, spending years caring for her grandparents, then her mother, then her young niece.

“I was always fixing somebody else or something for somebody else,” Walker said. “It is my turn. It is time to take care of myself.”

She tried to quit three times over the years. The longest stretch came in 1988, when she quit for seven months.

But something in her changed around Christmas 2017.

One day, she called Laura Rush, at Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital.

Walker had no idea what to expect, but she knew that by dialing that number, she would be committing to quitting in a way she hadn’t before.

“I had always gone back to it, but this time I was more determined,” she said.

First steps

Walker’s hurdles went beyond smoking.

She has struggled with sleep issues for almost 30 years and diabetes for the past 16 years. Doctors diagnosed her with COPD just a few years ago.

She knew the time had come to listen to her body.

It told her one thing: Quit smoking.

“I would wake up coughing and choking,” Walker said. “And I had to start sleeping in the recliner.”

As soon as she began the program with Rush, Walker felt completely at ease.

Rush hopes for such dynamics.

“From the beginning I told her, ‘This is not me lecturing you. You hear enough of that from everyone else,’” Rush said.

For the first three months, Rush called Walker and talked to her every day.

“At the end of the day, it is up to them,” Rush said. “They need to want to quit.”

Walker proved to be something of a paradox.

“She had a lot of strikes against her, but she was motivated,” Rush said.

Together, Rush and Walker worked to identify triggers and ways to move past them. For example, Walker has found some escape in crocheting because it keeps her hands busy.

While the first week or two proved hardest, the three-month milestone had been especially difficult.

“I didn’t want to let anyone down,” Walker said. “But by six months, there was no going back. My confidence really picked up.”

Looking ahead

Walker said she notices she is now coughing less and breathing better. (She said her breathing improved just two weeks after quitting.)

She’s getting around better and she has a better attitude. Her fingers no longer show the telltale stains of cigarette use.

Her daily tasks have changed for the better, too.

Fetching stove wood, once a difficult task that she’d interrupt for a cigarette break, has now become a twice-a-day activity that no longer calls for breaks to catch her breath.

“I miss nothing about it,” Walker said of smoking.

But even so, there were instances where staying smoke-free required incredible willpower.

“There were times I would wake up in the middle of the night and think I need a cigarette,” Walker said, remembering her struggle to curb the addiction.

Three times she slipped and took a puff off of a cigarette, but never did she smoke the entire thing—and never did those puffs ever satisfy.

Most importantly, her slips did not derail her progress. She would call Rush for support.

“When I am struggling, I always think, ‘Call Laura,’” Walker said.

Walker encourages people to undergo the same process.

“If you want to quit smoking, Laura is the one to do it with,” she said. “She is with you. She is right there. Always on your side, willing to do whatever it takes to help you. I look forward to her calls. They made my whole day.”

When Walker isn’t crocheting, she fills her time by solving crossword puzzles or playing with her dogs, Nikki and Sarah. She also volunteers at Mecosta County Senior Center, where she has served as a volunteer transporter for five years.

“I feel like now I can be proud of myself,” Walker said.

As Rush’s first patient to hit the one-year milestone, Walker hopes her success will show others they can quit, too.

“No sense in going backward when I am going forward so much now,” Walker said.

She looks forward to celebrating her 60s smoke-free.

“There were two goals: I wanted to quit coughing up a lung and I wanted to do it before my 60th birthday,” Walker said. “I was a little early.”