Zully Lara was 15-years-old when she had her first cigarette in her native Colombia. Little did she know, that first puff would lead to nearly 50 years of smoking.
“I was a teenager, and other friends in school told me to try,” said Lara, 65, who lives in Queens. “Back then, no one knew what cigarettes could do.”
At her peak, Lara smoked seven cigarettes each day. She quit briefly when she was pregnant with her first son, but she immediately started again after giving birth. The same thing happened with her second son – quit for the pregnancy but right back to smoking afterwards.
In all, Lara tried to quit smoking five times. She did so “cold turkey,” meaning she tried to quit on her own and without the help of any medical treatment.
Each time, her addiction to nicotine was too much to overcome. She got to the point where she said she was not able to enjoy life without smoking.
After spending too much time and money on cigarettes, she knew she needed help to live a smoke-free life. During an appointment with her primary care provider at La Clinica del Barrio in East Harlem, she noticed a flyer with information about the Smoking Cessation program. La Clinica is part of the NYC Health + Hospitals/Gotham Health network.
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 in quitting smoking.
Tobacco Cessation Counselor Joanne Penalo with patient Zully Lara
“We offer a program that’s free of judgment and full of support,” said Public Health Educator Joanne Penalo, who founded 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.”
Right from the start, Lara felt comfortable with Penalo. Through nicotine patches and counseling appointments every two weeks, she began taking steps toward decreasing the number of cigarettes she smoked. Penalo sees patients at three Gotham Health locations: Sydenham, La Clinica del Barrio, and Dyckman.
“She didn’t put any pressure on me and allowed me to have control of how I was going to do it,” Lara said. “She’s very patient and never judged me. I felt like I was talking to a friend.”
At first, Lara would take a break from cigarettes on weekdays but then smoke on weekends. Eventually though – with Penalo’s support and guidance – she was able to stop smoking for good.
It took Lara four times to successfully complete the program, and since 2016, she has been “smoke free.” She said she no longer has any desire to smoke cigarettes, which has led to a much-improved quality of life.
“When people around me are smoking, I do not get the anxiety or urge to smoke anymore,” she said. “The taste of food is beautiful again.”
“My friends always told me I smelled bad. But no more!” she said. “I am also walking faster now, since my breathing is better.”
For most people, it takes multiple tries to finally quit smoking. For Lara, the key was support from NYC Health + Hospitals.
Learn more about the health system’s resources to help you quit smoking.