Patty Loveless cherishes the breath of life

Patty Loveless might not have four No. 1 country hits if not for her big sister Dottie Ramey.

Dottie was a country singer when Patty was still in grammar school, looking on, amazed and inspired, when Dottie sang at clubs in eastern Kentucky, performing with their brother Roger as the Swingin’ Rameys.

Later, Patty watched helplessly as the sister with the beautiful voice strained to catch a single breath. “She had to raise up off the bed and try to grasp for air,” said Loveless, from her home near Cartersville. “It’s almost like trying to breathe through a straw.”

Dottie had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a disorder that would steal her breath and then her life.

The pain of losing a sister who was 48 to COPD drives Loveless to help raise awareness of the condition, which kills more people than breast cancer and diabetes combined.

Today Loveless is part of a quartet of well-known personalities in a "race team" driving a nationwide campaign to underscore the dangers of COPD. Loveless, NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner and football great Michael Strahan are each trying to recruit their fans to take a five-question screener and determine their risk for the condition.

The campaign has become a competition of sorts. Right now Patrick is ahead, but Loveless hopes to catch up on Nov. 4 when she sings at Discover Mills during a "Drive4COPD" event.

“Over 400,000 people have been screened,” said Loveless, adding that their goal is to screen a million before the end of year.

There could be 330,000 people with COPD in Georgia alone, according to Dr. Jeffrey Michaelson, a pulmonologist at Piedmont Hospital. Most will get the disease from smoking, he said, though a few will contract it because of  genetic reasons. The disease can take the form of chronic bronchitis, which restricts airways, and/or emphysema, which destroys lung tissue.

Some 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD; an equal number have the syndrome but are unaware of it. Early detection can slow or halt the progress of the disease, but once lung function is gone, it can't be recovered, Michaelson said.

Dottie Ramey was a smoker, Loveless said. “She started smoking at the age of 14 and she smoked until the day she died. She found out, when she was put into the hospital the first time, that she had emphysema, but by then it was way too late.”

Loveless also was a smoker, for a while. “I started around 15. I was a closet case. I wouldn’t smoke at my mom and dad’s house, because they would absolutely not allow that, but I would when I was hanging with my sister or with my friends.”

She quit after a while because of the smell that would cling to her clothes and hair, though Loveless has performed in plenty of smoky bars and clubs, and still worries about the residual effects. (The screener tells her that she’s not at risk.)

A true coal miner's daughter, Loveless grew up in eastern and northern Kentucky. After Dottie got married and backed out of show business, Roger encouraged Patty to jump in as a substitute, taking her to Nashville to meet Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton and to perform with the Wilburn Brothers. In 1976, Patty Ramey married the Wilburns' drummer, Terry Lovelace. (She adopted the stage name Patty Loveless to avoid association with the then-notorious Linda Lovelace.)

Her debut album, "Patty Loveless," appeared in 1986, the year she divorced Lovelace, and included one of her own songs, "I Did," which became a strong single. Her third album, 1988's "Honky Tonk Angel," produced two No. 1 singles: "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" and "Chains." The next year she would secretly marry her producer, Atlanta native Emory Gordy Jr. They maintained a vacation home north of Atlanta, which became their permanent home in 2006.

Loveless' career almost ended just as it was taking off when, in 1992, she underwent throat surgery to correct an aneurysm on one of her vocal cords. She wasn't allowed to sing or even speak for nine weeks. "Slowly but surely I got my voice back," she said.

"Losing a voice is one thing, but to lose the use of your lungs and never get that back -- it's not reversible -- that's just a slow death," she said.

Event preview

Patty Loveless concert. 6 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 4. Free. Discover Mills, 5900 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville.

Free COPD screenings from noon to 8:30 p.m. 678-847-5000,