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How to be a quitter: Learn from this cowboy

Spirit, Inspiring Stories

When we think of cowboys, we might think of the classic image: The animal-herding, horse-riding, boot-wearing arm of the law with a heart of gold—and he always has a cigarette in his mouth. Shawn Willson was no exception to this rule: At 44 years old, this real-life cowboy smoked at least a pack a day—which he had been doing since he was a teenager.

And then Shawn had a heart attack, went into cardiac arrest and died for 52 minutes.

“I was that guy,” Shawn says. “I would literally be having a cigarette, looking at the warning label on the pack that said quitting smoking would reduce your risk of heart disease, and I thought, oh, that applies to everybody else. Not me.”

As he found out on a fateful day in 2015, his perception was wrong.

Shawn is a cowboy, through and through. He grew up riding horses at a ranch, spent his ‘20s hanging out with professional bull riders and, naturally, listens to a lot of country music. He also believes that a handshake is a binding contract. When Shawn married his wife, Angela, they were invited to join a wild west reenactment group called Charityville Jail. Seven times per year, Shawn’s wild west troupe performs reenactments where audience members can fill out “warrants” for their friends’ arrest. After being “arrested” and sent to the jail, they can be bailed out for $3. It’s all in good fun, and all the bail funds go to charity.


Perhaps it was his resilient cowboy spirit that helped him survive that day in April 2015; When Angela rushed him to the emergency department at Adventist Health Simi Valley, Shawn was defibrillated 16 times and had CPR performed on him for nearly an hour. He still has scars from the electricity, but because he and his medical team were fighters, Shawn survived. When he woke up, his doctor told him he’d had his last cigarette.

Shawn came from a long line of smokers, as did his wife Angela, though she has never smoked. “My mom and my uncle were heavy smokers,” Shawn says. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, everyone smoked. It was just part of life.”

“All my favorite people are smokers,” Angela adds. “Growing up, I always thought the party was outside—where everyone was smoking.” She says that Shawn had tried to quit smoking several times before his heart attack, and she fully supported him every time. She says the longest he’d been able to quit was 14 days. One way he tried to keep his hands busy was shelling pistachios and peanuts, which Angela made sure to keep plenty of—but eventually, his hands found their way back to the pack of cigarettes.

Since his heart attack, Shawn hasn’t had a single cigarette. He says that his way of quitting wasn’t conventional (or ideal), but it scared him enough to never look back. After his heart attack, he and Angela were struggling with the trauma of going through such a terrible event. They knew that others would be going through the same, so they decided to start a support group at Adventist Health Simi Valley for other families in the region who face the same issues. They’ve been doing this for two years, and have no plans to stop. “As long as there’s someone that needs help, we’ll be here for them,” Angela says. “Because we know what it’s like to need people, too.”

Joe Valdez, a respiratory therapist at Adventist Health Central Valley Network, says that cigarette smoking is the number one cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Joe works with many patients struggling with COPD, and his mission is to try to get people to stop smoking so they don’t end up with COPD. One of his efforts is facilitating a Freedom from Smoking class, where people can get together and work to quit smoking.

While smoking is not a new trend by any means, vaping is. E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that contains nicotine and chemical liquids that are inhaled by the user, creating an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes that many people think is healthier. Joe says this could not be more wrong.

When someone “vapes” by inhaling the “e-liquids” into their lungs, they are still inhaling foreign chemicals into their body that are harmful. “If people knew all the chemicals involved in any kind of smoking, and what it does to the body—like increasing heart rate and blood pressure—I think they’d be more willing to think about quitting,” Joe says.

At the end of the day, the best way to quit smoking is to identify why you feel the need to smoke and reach out for help. “Don’t do it on your own,” Shawn says, singing the praises of support groups like Joe’s. “Just like anything in life, the more support you have, the better your chances of success.”

Shawn says that the thing about cowboys is that it isn’t what you wear. “It’s how you act,” he says. “Always treat others like you want to be treated. Live honestly and help others as much as you can.”

Need help quitting? Check out this list of resources.

*All photos courtesy of Angela Willson/Timeless Love Photos.