As a smoker for over 35 years, 51-year-old Samantha Borel, of Sulphur, knew it was bad for her but never expected it to literally take her breath away.

In May 2018, she went to sleep and stopped breathing.

Borel was later placed in a medically induced coma and woke up 15 days later unable to breathe on her own.

"I woke up on the 15th day and everybody was so happy to see me but arguing over what should be done," Borel said. "The doctor wanted me to be on a breathing machine because my lungs were so damaged that I can't breathe at night, and getting the care I need might take me out of my home.

"When they had me on life support, I saw my grandma who died four years earlier. The first thing I asked everyone when I woke up was, 'Did I die?'"

Across Louisiana, people with respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic respiratory failure and lung cancer are finding it difficult to breathe without special equipment such as ventilators or BiPAP machines.

Deborah Cormier's COPD caused her body's oxygen levels to drop at any given time, which sent her to the emergency room in early April. It wasn't until she was put on a BiPAP machine and her doctor saw how well she responded to it that Viemed was called in.

She said Viemed, the aggressively expanding Lafayette company that specializes in at-home treatment for patients with respiratory diseases, has been a lifesaver. 

Since its founding in 2006 as Sleep Management, the company has grown to provide equipment and home therapy to patients with various respiratory diseases. It recently bought the 77,000-square-foot building at 625 E. Kaliste Saloom Road to replace its 20,000-square-foot building. 

While Viemed still offers sleep tests and sleep therapy masks, it has found success with the in-home, noninvasive ventilation service it was able to pioneer with Dutch electronics conglomerate Philips in 2012.

"We started out doing sleep tests, but as a result of us really teaching an old dog new tricks and changing how sleep studies were done, we got offered the opportunity by Philips to bring their ventilator to the home marketplace," Viemed CEO Casey Hoyt said.

When lungs are sick or damaged, they have lost their elasticity and with it the ability to bring in good air like oxygen and expel bad air like carbon dioxide. Before noninvasive ventilation, the standard means of ventilation was to cut open the patient's throat and put a tube down to their lungs.

Now patients can use a standard CPAP mask to ventilate the lungs while at home.

"I have COPD and lung cancer, but I'm in remission," said Lynette Francisco, 75, of Lafayette. "I used to use another service before, but I have to tell you that using Viemed was a transformation. They're 100 percent wonderful. They respond really fast if you need anything. They listen and will bring more oxygen 24/7 whenever you need it."

Since this new service with Philips, Viemed and its new service has grown significantly. 

The company is in 28 states and expects to be offering services in all 48 continental United States by the end of next year. It has 375 employees with 125 based at its headquarters in Lafayette. Gov. John Bel Edwards also helped Viemed announce its expansion will bring 220 new jobs to Acadiana with an average salary of $42,800, plus benefits. 

"We got bought out in 2015 by Patient Home Monitoring... At that point in time, they offered for us to move to California to run the company, but (Viemed President Mike Moore) and I said, "Look, we'll gladly accept these executive roles, but we're not leaving Lafayette," Hoyt said. "Louisiana is important to us. We love to hunt and fish. We love the people and culture, and it's a great health care incubator with guys like LHC, Acadian Ambulance and Lafayette General."

Hoyt said there's opportunity for growth in the region. Company COO Todd Zehnder estimates that almost 95% of potential patients that could benefit from noninvasive ventilation are not on the service today.

"We have a monumental task to go and get a high enough market penetration around the country," he said. "COPD is extremely prevalent in Europe and other countries, but we have so much to do here in the lower 48 that it's going to keep us busy for quite some time."

The company recently went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange and plans to go public in the U.S. this year, Hoyt said. Its stock price went from $4.43 per share in July 2018 to as high as $10.03 last month.

Viemed is normally in the home with patients for an average of 17 months and is looking to offer additional services for the other chronic diseases normally found in patients. Part of its plan calls for treating other diseases in the home while helping patients with COPD and other respiratory conditions.

Borel's family no longer worries about her staying at home. She's been back home for over nine months because of Viemed and her respiratory therapist, Brandi Authement. Cormier says Viemed's equipment and services have been "invaluable."

"My lungs have cleared and I'm breathing better and my oxygen is steady," Cormier said. "If I need anything, day or night, I can call and they'll answer and help. If someone were to come in and rob me one night, I'd give up my dog before I'd let them take my BiPAP machine, and I love my dog. It's a lifesaver."

Email Dan Boudreaux at dboudreaux@theadvocate.com.