Philippe Boucher's Rendez Vous: Debi

Rendez-vous with . . . Debi

Laryngectomy patient and tobacco control advocate. California, USA

By Philippe Boucher
This interview would not have been possible without the help of Matthew Le Veque.
November 16, 2000

Debi had a laryngectomy due to her smoking. She gave her testimony in a 1997 TV ad for the California's Department of Health campaign. This ad, where she smokes through her stoma is considered one of the most effective to get the public and especially the teen's attention. It has also been aired in the states of Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington, Indiana and in Canada. Two new TV ads with Debi are part of new media campaign that started November 2d in California.

Q1. First, I want to thank you Debi for having the courage to share your experience of the addictiveness of tobacco and the consequences of your smoking. You have certainly touched millions of people in California and beyond in other states and countries where your testimony has been aired.

Thank you.

How did that happen? How did you decide to go on TV?

Debi : Sharri Robertson, one of the main contacts for the New Voice Club in the San Fernando Valley, contacted me. [Sharri has recently passed away from brain cancer.] She was working with the Laryngectomy Association of California, and told me that the California Department of Health Services was planning a commercial spot. They were looking for someone who had been disfigured from tobacco use, and particularly wanted a laryngectomee who still smoked. I was still smoking at the time, but I had never publicly admitted it. I remember speaking at a school program once and I had denied that I was still smoking.

Imagine, standing up in front of everyone after this horrible surgery and saying that I was still smoking cigarettes? It was embarrassing. It took me a while to decide I would do the commercial.

But I decided to do it. They showed me the storyboard and the script. I didn't make any changes, except the age when I started smoking. The original script said that I started at 14-15, while I actually started at 13. We changed the age they had scripted.

The shoot took place in a house in Pasadena. The members of the crew were smoking, which was completely different from the atmosphere on set the second time around, after I had quit. [That time, it was a non-smoking set.] We were all talking about our addiction to nicotine, and the things that we had done to try to quit.

The shoot was the same day as "Baby Blocks," another commercial for the California Department of Health Services. My commercial was shot second. I was extremely nervous. When they put me in the chair to say my lines, I was terrified. You dream about being an actor, but you never imagine having that kind of stage fright. I was a deer in headlights. The shoot took about four hours to complete - not just because of me, but because they were trying different angles and lighting.

The smoking part was the most difficult. At that time, I had never smoked in front of anyone else. I would go downstairs in my apartment in the garden, where no one could see me. I had never looked in the mirror, and was not at all aware of what I looked like. When I smoked in front of people for the first time on set, it was very strange. And it was the first time that it really dawned on me, how much of a prisoner I was. My addiction was more important than anything. It was hard to do that in front of so many people. But when I finished that day, I felt good about it. If one person stopped smoking because of what I did, it was worth it.

They were not sure the commercial was ever going to air. Up until that point, nothing had been shown on TV like this. It was so blatantly graphic. But it did air in March 1997. And I really wasn't prepared for the reaction.

On the first day, they talked about it on the morning news. I didn't think much about it, but later another news program talked about it. Then I thought this must be a big story. Then it really hit me. Later that day, I had to go get my drivers license renewed at the DMV. While I was standing in line, a guy pointed and said, "That's the woman in the commercial." That's first time I was recognized.

I have also gotten a lot of positive comments from people who recognize me. I once had a gentleman come up to me and say that I had given him his wife and daughter back, because they had quit smoking. Another woman stopped me in a restaurant and gave me her pack of cigarettes, saying that she was quitting.

Q2. In a recent interview with Jim Martin, a laryngectomy patient from North Carolina, ( see rendez-vous 75 ) he mentioned how desperate and powerless he felt after the surgery, how often patients feel ashamed to speak out, to show their stoma. Did you have a similar experience?

Debi : I'm sure we all do. There are the ten days after the surgery of total helplessness. And in my case, I didn't learn to talk for two years. There is a lot of helplessness, and anxiety. The first time someone said that I deserved this, because I was a smoker, I was angry.

I stayed angry, but I didn't stay quiet about it. That's why I became an advocate for patient's rights and laryngectomy rights.

Q3. In the first TV spot you put your cigarette into your stoma. How did you feel continuing to smoke after the surgery? Did you ever consider suing?

Debi : I was in the hospital for ten days after the surgery. Then for another month there were a lot of people around, so I couldn't smoke. But then that day came, when I had my first cigarette again.

It was almost overwhelming. You have to understand, the smoke went straight to my lungs, without all of the filters in between. The effect was almost like my first cigarette - I was dizzy and lightheaded. That feeling should have been enough to let me know not to do it anymore. But the cravings were just too strong. You have no control when you are addicted to cigarettes. I am a control freak, and it is very humbling to realize that you have no control.

Of course I am mad at the tobacco companies. But I can do more damage to the tobacco companies by talking to students and doing commercials, than wasting ten years of my life in courtrooms fighting lawyers. I would rather be in the classroom teaching the other side of the issue.

Q4. In one of the new TV ads, that I have not yet seen , you discuss your decision to quit. Can you tell us about it?

Debi : I quit because of my niece Joy, who is now seven years old. When Joy's mother moved in to help take care of me, it was a rough year. I was in the hospital 13 times in 12 months. The first time Joy asked me what the funny smell was in the house, she was five years old. It was cigarette smoke, but I lied to her. After we put her to bed, I just sat there thinking about what I did. There was no way I could go on lying. Kids are smart.

Joy always saw me as the person I was after the surgery. She learned from me. We had to teach her to cover her mouth when she coughed, not her throat! I realized that I was an example to her, and I didn't want her to turn out like me.

Quitting was hard. I got a bag of butterscotch candy, because I thought that the sweet and saltiness of the butterscotch would satisfy my oral cravings. But what people don't realize is that smoking is not just an oral fixation - it's a whole process. It's opening the pack of cigarettes it's a ritual.

And the hardest thing is figuring out is what to do with your hands! I saw a guy in a movie once playing with a ping-pong ball with a pair of chopsticks, trying to catch the ball. So that's what I did. Every time I would reach for a cigarette, I would instead pick up a pair of chopsticks, bounce the ping-pong ball, and try to catch it. I killed the oral sensation with the candy, and kept my hands moving with the chopsticks.

Now that I have quit, my niece thinks it's just great. She is pretty surprised. She is so young, she never imagined she could have such an impact. She also thinks that it's exciting, that people know her name. They walk up and say, "You must be Joy!" And she is happy because she thinks I am going to be around longer.

Q5. Many kids downplay the addictiveness of cigarettes. They think they'll be able to quit later on, when they'll feel like it. Was that your case? What do you think should be done to adequately warn the public? Air more ads like yours?

Debi : I never thought about quitting when I was younger. It was one of those things I just accepted. Back then, there weren't a lot of people telling you that it was not good for you. People would tell you not to smoke, but they didn't give many good reasons. Plus, if your parents smoked, it was hard to listen to them because they were doing it too. At that time, nobody knew how to say, "I'm an addict. I want to quit."

I am always in favor of more ads. If a three-year old can recognize McDonalds from TV ads, they are paying attention. The more anti-smoking ads fill the airwaves, the more information people will have. This is what is important.

When I go to schools to talk to kids, I tell them there is a difference between making a decision and making a choice. If you have the information, you are making a decision. If you don't, you are making a choice.

Q6. Have you seen the new big warnings with pictures that are going to appear next year on Canadian packs? The first one on the list is cigarettes are highly addictive. Do you think such warnings would have an impact? Should the US packs become like that?

Debi : I think it will work for a number of people. I don't think it will be a cure-all. I'm sure that a lot of people are not going to want to put something in their mouth that says "Danger: this will kill you." I do think that the warnings in the U.S. are not strong enough. Unfortunately, the "in-your-face" stuff works.

Q7. Is there anything else you would like to add ?

Debi : I am glad that people are starting to listen about the dangers of smoking. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this. My feeling is, if I can't be a good influence, at least I can be a horrible example.

Thank you.

PB: Thank you Debi for taking the time to be with us today.

P.S : Debi's first TV ad for the California DOH is titled "Voicebox: Industry". It can be obtained via the CDC Media Campaign Resource Center (MCRC). The person to contact is Karen Leggett :

Rendez-vous is supported by a contract from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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