Joe Nichols has been very open about the tumultuous relationship he had with his father, citing an abusive childhood as a contributing factor to his briefly destructive lifestyle. But he also loved his father dearly, a testament found in recollections of him attending St. Louis Cardinal games and performing Merle Haggard’s “Footlights,” his father’s favorite song, at the Grand Ole Opry. By all accounts, Joe and his father had an average relationship under extraordinary circumstances.
Nichols’ father, Michael, suffered from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a rare lung disease that kills approximately 40,000 people every year. For nearly four years, doctors misdiagnosed Michael’s persistent and violent coughing as other conditions. Just as Joe’s career began to take flight, Michael succumbed to the disease at the tender age of 46 in 2002.
On a mission to end the disease that his father endured, Nichols has paired with the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim to launch the “Breathless: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at IPF” campaign, an effort to educate the public on the terrible disease. Using his celebrity, Nichols hopes to enlighten the public, encourage medical evaluation if symptoms of IPF are present, and, hopefully, bring some meaning to his father’s passing.
I spoke with Nichols about his father’s experience with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and his mission to raise awareness
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is the disease in which you tragically lost your father. Can you tell us a bit about your father’s experience?
My father passed away at 46 back in 2002, diagnosed in 2000, correctly, after being misdiagnosed starting in 1996, with anywhere from tuberculosis to double pneumonia. Asthma was the big one. Severe bronchitis, a list of about eight different lung diseases that he was misdiagnosed with over a couple of years and finally got the terrible news that he was terminal in 2000.
Can you tell us a bit about just being a son and witnessing your father enduring so many misdiagnosis’?
It was very hard, very painful losing a loved one. A parent… it’s tough, especially at a young age like that. My family took it pretty hard. I think my dad took it better than any of us. He came to terms pretty quickly with it. Understood that it was severe and terminal.
It must have been stressful, not just on him but also on you and the rest of your family.
I think the one thing that is a recurring sadness amongst my family members was the unawareness, the lack of information there was. I mean, I had never heard about the disease before he was diagnosed. I think we wanted to know more about it, we were kind of shocked that there was a disease out there that affected so many people that nobody knew anything about.
Tell us a little more about the campaign, “Breathless.”
My goal, and my family’s goal, has always been to make this, give it some kind of purpose. Turn this into some kind of hope as opposed to just living with the helplessness and hopelessness of this disease. So I think now, more than anything, I think two things that we’re trying to do: raise awareness, because I think awareness is the key to anything. To get the word out there and making sure people are trying to see a doctor, or, at least, are aware of the symptoms. The other thing is, like I said, for my family, personally, is bringing meaning to something that has felt like an empty hole for so long.
How can we find out more about the disease and the campaign?
We’re doing extensive online stuff with the website, breathlessipf.com. You can go to my Twitter at @JoeNichols, follow my Facebook, and my website has links to breathlessipf.com as well. There’s a lot of information on that website. But as far as publicity we’ve done a lot of television and radio interviews to date, doing some more today actually. The thing is to get as many audiences as we can. So our #1 goal to achieve is raising awareness and getting people to understand the symptoms and seek a doctor for themselves or a family member that may be experiencing some of the symptoms. Idiopathic means “no cure, no cause,” and I’m hoping we can change that.