The last cigarette: Ex-smokers who quit the habit for good

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(CNN) — For one, it was a health scare. For another, the words of a friend hit him in an instant. And for another, it was the loss of a dear relative.

Many ex-smokers can remember their last cigarette, and the moment when they decided to quit the habit for good.

On the occasion of Thursday’s Great American Smokeout, an annual event sponsored by the American Cancer Society, here’s a look at some former smokers and the moment they decided it was time to say goodbye.

Lisa Gonsalves’ last cigarette is a blur compared to the “health perfect storm” she was hit with in 2005.

At first, it seemed like a winter flu, but as the new year came, she found she couldn’t breathe unless she sat in a chair.

She was almost too late to be treated.

“I ended up in the hospital for 12 days with two chest tubes and the potential of having my chest cracked open just to get the ‘gunk’ out of my chest. I was lucky to get back to health and avoid surgery. My recovery was long and tedious.”

Her husband had never seen her so sick. “The look of panic and helplessness convinced me that I had to stop.”

Like many former smokers, it was the last of many potential turning points for the Los Angeles health care consultant, who started smoking as a teenager to fit in.

The first was having a baby, the second and third moments were her mother’s stroke (at age 50) and grandmother’s heart attack.

“It took me a while to realize I was a stress and social smoker,” she said.

“Pressure from work and going out to happy hours fueled my habit, but smoking made me feel better for just a moment. What is worse is that I knew better. I worked in health care and saw the effects of long-term smoking.”

“I can’t say that I don’t crave it – especially when I am stressed out. I do have to constantly remind myself of the pain and the feeling of drowning because I couldn’t breathe to keep me from running out and getting a pack. It is a very mental game I play every day but I get stronger and stronger every day without a cigarette.”

Kara Wethington’s 66-year-old grandmother had just died. Wethington took one final drag on a cigarette.

It was 2000, and she decided this would be her last smoke.

“I was shocked because this woman was an ox who smoked four packs of Pall Mall cigarettes a day and worked full time as a nurse,” said the Los Angeles resident, who was 23 at the time.

“I always felt safe that this blood line relative could smoke like a chimney and still be OK all these years later. She looked 100 but acted 60.”

But, “the reality of it is that she fell ill with pneumonia and her lungs couldn’t support her any longer.”

As she finished her last cigarette, Wethington reflected on how she got there.

“I loved smoking. The social aspect of it, the taste of it, the way it made me feel — everything about it was romantic to me.”

But the death of her grandmother was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” soon after Wethington herself was diagnosed with an aggressive form of strep throat, and she hasn’t looked back for 13 years.

“I’ve had smoking dreams that felt so intimately real that the line of reality and fantasy blurred out my memory. I know I didn’t smoke but sometimes those dreams feel really good and sometimes with real regret.”

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