When he was 15, Joseph Brice began smoking with his friends. At first, cigarettes made him feel sick, but as he smoked more, his body developed a tolerance to the nicotine to the point where he constantly craved it.
By 18, Brice was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Smoking became a routine part of his life – he’d smoke right after waking up, right after drinking a cup of coffee and right after eating a meal.
“Different things I did would activate the habit,” said Brice, 67. “It controlled my life for years.”
During his more than 40 years as a smoker, Brice tried to quit at least 20 times. He said that once his son started school at age 6, he would constantly beg his father to stop smoking. But, Brice couldn’t quit.
While nicotine patches and gum temporarily helped with the urges, Brice soon wound up reverting to smoking a full pack a day.
NYC Health + Hospitals Smoking Cessation Counselor Joanne Penalo with patient Joseph Brice
“I started seeing all these commercials about cancer, diseases and high blood pressure, so I said, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?'” Brice said. “It started getting out of hand to the point where I wanted some help.”
While working as a clerical associate at NYC Health + Hospitals/Gotham Health, Sydenham in East Harlem, Brice found out about the health system’s Smoking Cessation Program. He knew he would need help in kicking his smoking habit, and health educator, Joanne Penalo, was there for him.
“We offer a program that’s free of judgment and full of support,” said Penalo, who started the Smoking Cessation Program 11 years ago.
“I let the patients tell me their story, tell me why they smoke, and then we take it from there.”
The 18-week program offers patients flexibility, nicotine patches, individual counseling, coping mechanisms and relapse-prevention tips. Across the city’s five boroughs, NYC Health + Hospitals has 11 Smoking Cessation Programs to help people quit. They offer more intensive one-on-one or group counseling for patients who would like extra support to quit smoking.
Brice met with Penalo every two weeks and relied on nicotine patches and gum. Soon, he realized he did not feel the need to smoke anymore. Each step of the way, Penalo encouraged him and helped him continue to overcome the habit.
“When I wanted a cigarette, I used to call her up and she would tell me to hang in there,” Brice said. “She was somebody that I could call to lean on. She would talk me through urges and was always there for me.
“She was never too busy. She would make sure I was using the gum and the patches and would always have a supply for me. She got me through this.”
When Brice finally quit for good, the first person he told was his son.
“He was really proud of me,” Brice said. “I felt it was important to quit smoking because now that he was a young man, I didn’t want him to pick up that habit. I wanted to be a positive role model for him. My family, as a whole, was overjoyed of my accomplishment.”
Brice has now been smoke-free for the past 10 years. He proudly displays his Smoking Cessation Program graduation certificate on the wall in his home as a reminder of how far he’s come in his journey to quit smoking.
“I went from smoking a pack a day to now where I can’t even stand the smell of cigarettes. That’s unbelievable!” Brice said.