UNDATED (NBC) - More than three million Americans with emphysema struggle for every breath. But doctors are testing a new procedure that may ease their suffering.
Up until three years ago, Larry Dibble had no trouble taking deep breaths.
"Actually it happened one night, just overnight, I went to sleep, got up to go to work. And I couldn't breathe," Dribble said.
At 60, this lifelong smoker was diagnosed with emphysema. It forced him to retire and give up his active lifestyle. Worst of all, his doctors said there was nothing they could do.
"If you've ever had the breath knocked out of you, it's like that continuously," he said.
Healthy lungs are elastic, which makes breathing effortless.
"We actually suck air in. But when we exhale, all we do is relax, it's a very passive thing. And the reason we exhale the air is because the elastic tissues in the lung are contracting and pushing the air back out," says Dr. John Kucharczuk.
But emphysema stiffens lung tissue and collapses small airways.
"They can't breathe any more air in. They also have a great difficulty trying to get the air out," Kucharczuk says.
Doctors are studying an airway bypass treatment that could help patients' lungs work better.
"So what we're hoping to do is just really improve the quality of their life so that they can be much more functional and much more active," said Kucharczuk.
The doctor uses a bronchoscope, a thin flexible tube with a camera, to make new holes in the airway.
"What we do to keep that hole open is deploy a small drug-coated stent and the stent actually holds the hole open and provides a new airway," said Kucharczuk.
Research has renewed Larry's hope.
"I'm not going to be 100 percent but a lot better than I am now," says Dribble.
His days of struggling to exhale may be over soon.
This international study is called the "ease trial." it's for patients with severe emphysema that is distributed throughout the entire lung.
But the biggest way to prevent emphysema is not to smoke cigarettes.