The Deadly Powder
James, died at home in June 2003. He was sixty nine. He had been officially diagnosed with Asbestosis some ten years earlier. Actually, he had probably suffered from it much longer but had been told he had a heart complaint. When he collapsed at work for the second time in 1987 he was told to go home and not to come back. Part of his job at the time was insulating pipes with asbestos.
My stepfather, my mother, my two sisters and I, migrated to Australia in 1960 from the U.K.
We arrived with very little money so when work proved scarce in Brisbane, James readily accepted work in the Brisbane shipyards.
He was one of many who entered the ships’ boiler rooms to spray them with asbestos to fireproof them.
In the heat of the Queensland summer, the temperature in the boiler rooms was sometimes almost unbearable so he and his fellow work mates sometimes discarded their overalls and worked in their underclothes.
He always came home with his overalls covered in the white asbestos powder.
I remember many times over the years, when I helped my mother to do the washing, how we naively shook the dust from his clothes before putting them in the washing machine.
The powder floated in the air like innocent talcum powder before finding its way to the floor to be swept up later.
(Some woman have contacted Asbestosis from washing their husband’s dust covered clothes)
When there were no ships to fireproof, James went to work spraying asbestos in some of the tallest buildings in the Brisbane at the time. Whenever we drove over the Victoria Bridge into the city he used to proudly point out which building he was working on that week.
Later he would look at them and cringe. Death traps in waiting, he called them.
Many of these buildings are still there today.
For awhile, James didn't appear too worried about his illness or if he did, he never let on.
He received sickness benefits for awhile, however when it became obvious he was not improving, he had no option but to apply for a disability pension.
After he and my mother moved house several times he lost track of most his old work mates.
Over the years he would occasionally bump into someone from the old days and upon inquiring as to his mates’ welfare would to be told of one who had died. It seemed extraordinary at the time that so many had died.
One day he was told of yet another of his old work mates from the shipyards that had died, but this time asbestosis was named.
On his next visit to the doctor he demanded a further investigation.
Even when told, none of us realized how serious asbestosis disease really was.
(There was very little information available about asbestosis at the time.
The media had yet to realize the catastrophe waiting to reveal itself.)
By the late 1990’s four of the men who had worked closest with James had died, all from asbestosis.
Feelings of depression took over and James decided to return to England.
My mother agreed to go with him. She later confided in us that he had told her he wanted to die at
"Home". Although I understood his reason for leaving I still tried to talk him out of it.
After they left, my two sisters, myself and our families, were all in a state of depression ourselves, convinced if we would never see them again.
They were only in England a few weeks when my mother rang, telling me James had been admitted to hospital. After being ill for several days he suddenly couldn't breathe and an ambulance was called.
Paramedics worked on him on all the way to the hospital, literally saving his life.
He had double pneumonia. A hospital doctor later advised him to return to Australia if he wanted to live for much longer.
The cold and dampness of an English winter would surely kill him, he told him.
My mother rang me and told me they were coming home.
As soon as he was stable enough to travel they flew back. I was shocked to see how thin and incredibly weak he had become.
His breathing was so laboured I was surprised he had been allowed on the plane.
It took him weeks to recuperate. Although he never said anything to us, my mother told me how during their stopover in Hong Kong, he had spent the whole time in the hotel bedroom oblivious of his surroundings.
The hotel staff, she told me, did everything they could to make him comfortable. I'm sure they must have been quite fearful of having a guest
dying on their premises.
Over the next few years his health slowly deteriorated and in 2002 he was referred to a specialist in asbestosis cases.
He was finally confronted with the whole awful truth. He had asbestosis of the worst kind.
He had something called, mesothelioma: a cancer of the lung which is only caused by asbestos.
I remember him passing me the specialist’s report to read. He sat patiently waiting while I read it.
I couldn't believe what I was reading.
"The specialist said mine is the worst case of asbestosis he has ever seen”.
He said it almost casually, as if to reassure me that I had not misunderstood the report, and yet as if to ease my shock.
I looked up at him and saw how visibly shaken he was.
(Asbestos particles are extremely fine fibres which, when inhaled, enter the lungs and become embedded into the lining where they stay for many years while the body tries to expel them, as it would splinters. When it cannot expel them, the body eventually grows scar tissue over them. Millions of these scars form, which, like all scars, cannot stretch. The lungs become increasingly difficult to expand making it progressively more difficult
One day my mother collapsed while they were out having lunch at a local club, one of their rare outings.
An ambulance was called and she was admitted to hospital with pneumonia and other related problems, and for a few days we thought we would lose her.
To make matters worse, she collapsed in the hospital shower and lay there under the running water until a orderly found her.
It was a very stressful time for all of us. When she came home, James, with the help of the blue nurses, became her carer.
It was weeks before my mother fully recovered.
It was about this time my stepfather made the inevitable decision to cease driving.
As my mother couldn't drive, he knew he could no longer afford to risk being out in the car and suddenly be struck by a stab of pain or breathlessness.
My parents now became reliant on one of the family driving them anywhere they needed to go.
For a man who had always prided himself on being independent, having to be chauffeured only further confirmed his deteriorating condition.
Now when they went to the shopping centre, my mother used a walking stick and he pushed a shopping trolley, not to carry the shopping but to lean on.
But it wasn't too long before James decided even that was becoming too difficult.
My daughter started shopping every week for her grandparents. She cooked all their main meals in bulk which were then frozen in containers, ready to be popped in the micro waved
when needed. My two sisters and I took on whatever jobs we could do.
As both I and one sister lived a 45 minute drive away, we occasionally took turns sleeping over.
As my mother’s health slowly improved, James’ continued to diminish.
Then James had another bout of pneumonia and was admitted to hospital.
One doctor stopped by his bed just to ask him questions as he had never seen an asbestosis patient before.
Listening to his chest, he informed him, with some exhilaration that his lungs sounded just like Velcro opening.
Although he was constantly gasping for breath, he was still left to make his own way to and from the bathroom, which he did with the help of a walking aid.
One day I arrived as he was returning from the toilet. He was so breathless he almost collapsed on his bed.
Upon inquiring about his condition, one nurse informed me, “He would do better if he tried to help himself a little more” I asked her if she was aware he had asbestosis? She looked at me in horror. We were all very glad when he finally came home
Towards the end of 2002 James spent most of the day either sitting in his lounge chair watching
TV or resting on his bed. Morphine kept most of his pain at bay; an oxygen machine, which resembled a large vacuum cleaner, helped him to breath.
The machine was a life saver; its only draw back, the extra heat it produced during the summer weather.
Earlier, he had been in touch with Shirley White, and her husband Reginald, (Reg) who was himself an asbestosis suffer.
This wonderful couple had been providing support and information to asbestosis suffers and their families for quite some time.
It was these people who encouraged James to apply again for
compensation, not so much for himself (the money would be of little benefit to him now, he was too sick to do
anything) but for my mother’s old age.
James had consulted a solicitor once before and been told there was little likelihood of him receiving any compensation as he wasn't sick enough, even though he had worked with both white and blue (the deadliest) asbestos.
“How sick do you have to be?” he had fumed.
James, forever proud, vowed he would never try again. He said he had enough to
contend without any added stress. It seemed to him not too many men had been successful in their claims anyway.
But Shirley and Reg encouraged him to file for compensation again. It was an ongoing struggle.
There were so many forms to fill in, so much information to gather.
It had all happened so many years ago it was often hard to remember all the details.
Also, he was sometimes required to travel into Brisbane, well over an hour’s drive.
Eventually he would take a wheelchair and an oxygen cylinder with him.
But by then he had invested so much of his energy into fighting his cause he became determined to see it through.
One day, thinking a bit of fresh air and a change of scenery would do him good, I persuaded him to come for a ten minute drive with me and my mother.
I drove to the nearby Redland Bayside and parked at the water’s edge.
We watched the small boats sailing gracefully across the green shimming
water. It was a most gloriously sunny day, blue skies, birds flying overhead.
I remember thinking what a perfect Brisbane day it was. We sat in the car in silence, all thinking our own thoughts for about ten minutes before my stepfather asked to be taken home.
He needed his oxygen again. He never went out again.
During the last few months of his life, James lost weight, his arms broke out in skin sores, which resembled ulcers and were difficult to heal. Breathing became increasingly difficult and often painful.
Occasionally the morphine tablets were not enough and the pain would break through.
He would call out for someone to bring the liquid morphine from the fridge.
By now he spent most of the day just resting on his bed.
At first, too embarrassed to use a urinal bottle or commode, he insisted on struggling to the toilet.
He had already conceded to having bed baths after collapsing in the shower, too exhausted by the struggle to breathe.
But one day he had my mother and I push him on his walking aid to the toilet, his oxygen tube trailing behind still attached to the oxygen machine in the bedroom.
It was a struggle even for us to get him there. Inside the toilet he had a panic attack.
Only then did he finally agree to use a bottle and commode in the bedroom.
His life became a little more comfortable for a while as he rarely needed to leave his bed anymore.
Subsequently, he began to be beleaguered by bedsores. A special electric air mattress was soon organized by the Blue
Nurses which proved to be of great benefit. Morphine which generally controlled his pain, eventually become an evil necessity as one of morphine’s vindictive side effects is constipation.
One of his few pleasures was fruity ice-blocks which wetted his constantly dry mouth, caused by the oxygen.
It was a far cry from the days when he would have wetted dry lips with a
beer … or two.
Asbestosis is a cruel disease in that it disables the body whilst leaving the mind fully aware of its predicament.
One day, inspired to do some woodwork, a hobby he'd once enjoyed, he sent one of my sisters out to buy an array of electrical hand tools, only to have his body reject the idea.
Consequently, they remained unopened on a shelf in his bedroom, sad reminders of his incapacity.
A model kit of the Titanic, a gift from my daughter, lay on a table partly assembled.
"I'll finish it later", he assured us. The model lay where it was until the day he died.
But as sick as he was, my stepfather had no intentions of relinquishing his role as head of the house.
No decisions could or would ever be made without consulting him first and that included money matters.
He wanted to know the cost of his medications and everything else.
Even the lawn mowing man had to come into the house to receive payment, although I sometimes suspected it was just an excuse to have a chat with another male.
He checked every bill and receipt before placing it in the draw beside his bed.
My mother said it gave him something useful to do.
Every day he read the newspaper from beginning to end. My mother, and I, if I was there, would join him in the bedroom to watch the evening news on
TV. He was especially concerned about the troubles in the Middle Eastern countries, having served in Jordan whilst a young corporal in the R.A.F.
James always looked forward to discussions about current affairs with his volunteer home-visitor, Adrian, who had promptly arrived every week for two years, to keep him company for a couple of hours. Towards the end Adrian would often find James asleep and not wanting to disturb him would sit with my mother, offering her some words of comfort.
I found out later that Adrian visited six other house-bound people every week.
By the time the news came that he had won his case, James was completely bed ridden and receiving palliative care.
There was no excitement, only relief that the battle was finally over.
A vast amount of his compensation had been taken up by solicitor’s fees. The question we all asked was: Why does it take so long for a person to obtain any compensation once they have been diagnosed with asbestosis, a terminal disease?
By delaying these claims some victims died before their case ever came before the court.
As the weeks passed, James's days were increasingly consumed by sleep. The house grew oddly quiet.
Only the noise of the oxygen machine, which had constantly hummed day and night for weeks could be heard, but by then no-one noticed. During the last few days of his life he woke only for water and medication. On the night of the 1st of June he became violently ill.
The doctor was called. More morphine was administered. By 8 am the next morning he was dead.
Never, during all this time did I ever once hear my stepfather complain.
He never swore or cursed his condition, only saying there was nothing anyone could do about
it so that was that. His only concern was my mother. He couldn't praise the
Blue Nurses enough. I think his one regret was that he never had the opportunity to warn the people of Brisbane about all the places he had sprayed with asbestos.
One day they will start to disintegrate and need to be demolished.
He hoped no-one would ever have to suffer the same consequences as he had.
No amount of compensation is worth it.
My stepfather was the bravest man I have ever known.
My thanks go to Shirley White who has fought, and still does, to obtain justice for asbestosis suffers and their families.
(Shirley White was awarded an Australian Senior Citizen of the Year award in 2004 for her services to asbestosis suffers)
Companies have known for years the dangers of Asbestos but have ignored them. Thousands of men, woman, and children have been exposed to the dangers of asbestos. In office buildings, schools, hospitals, and even in their own homes. We can't change the past but we can make sure no future generations are exposed to this deadly dust as building eventually begin to disintegrate. Every day we read about another death caused by asbestos. My stepfather was just one of many hundreds who have already died from its lethal effects. Some people had no idea they had even been exposed to the deadly dust.
By 2020 the disease will reach its peak as Asbestosis takes twenty to thirty years before any symptoms start to appear. By then there may be no money left to pay the victims any compensation.
"What a well written short
piece, enjoyed reading every line."
"love your work. i still
miss him so much. so does nanna"
"great story mum, you have
never told me before"
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