Asbestos a True Story

by wendy nimmo

ASBESTOS

A

TRUE STORY

MY FATHER, Albert, died at home in June 2003. He was sixty nine. He had been officially diagnosed with Asbestosis some fourteen years earlier. Actually, he had probably suffered from it much longer but had been told he had a heart complaint. Part of his job at the time was insulating pipes with asbestos.

My Dad, my Mum, and my two step sisters (from mum's first marriage) and I, migrated to Australia in 1960 from the U.K. We arrived with very little money so when work proved scarce in Brisbane, Albert readily accepted work in the Brisbane as a Sheep Metal worker doing pipes for Companies. One of many the many job's was in ships' boiler rooms to spray them with asbestos to fireproof them, He had received a Contract to do 3 patrol boats for the Government in N.S.W. In the heat of the 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, upon coming up from the bottom of the boats, someone would grab the hose and just hose them down as the dust was inches thick on the body, no masks or or safety equipment was supplied in those day's, as no one ever new how dangerous this product was.

Dad always came home with his overalls covered in the white asbestos powder. I remember many times over the years, when my Mum did the washing, how Mum 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, Mum used to tell me this was Fairy Dust and I would run through it making my wish.

(Some woman have contacted Asbestosis from washing their husband's dust covered clothes)

When there were no ships to fireproof, Dad went to work spraying asbestos in some of the tallest buildings in the Brisbane at the time, Brisbane City Hall, Schools, Hospitals etc he had worked all over Australia. Whenever we drove over the Story Bridge in Brisbane 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, Dad 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 back to England a few 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 Dad had died, all from asbestosis. Feelings took over and as Mum sister in England was ill Dad agreed to move back to England for Mum's sake even though it was not in his best interest due to the dampness and weather in England. Although I understood his reason for leaving I still tried to talk him out of it. After they left, my family, myself were all in a state, convinced if we would never see them again.

They were only in England a few weeks when my Dad's Doctor rang from the Hospital in England, telling me Dad 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 mum rang me and told me they were coming home, My Aunty Dad's sister was helping mum with the arrangements, Mum's furniture had not even arrived yet.

As soon as Dad was stable enough to travel they flew back. I was shocked to see how thin and incredibly weak he had become when I picked them up from the Airport, both of them in wheels chairs, thanks goodness for the kindness of the Airport staff to asset me to get them and there luggage into the car. His breathing was not so good and he had a oxygen bottle with him, Mum looked so upset and worried about Dad. It took him weeks to recuperate.

Over the next few years his health slowly deteriorated and in 2001 he was referred to a specialist in asbestosis cases at St Andrews Hospital. Dad was finally confronted with the whole awful truth. Dad had asbestosis of the worst kind. Dad 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, as this had been confirmed back in 1989 by a government doctor for his Disablity Pension, saying it could efentuate in 10 to 15 years.

"The specialist said mine is the worst case of asbestosis he has ever seen".

(Asbestos particles are extremely fine fibers 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 to breath.)

One day in 2001 my Mum collapsed while they were out having lunch at a local club with my Aunty Dads sister from England, 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 Mum came home, Dad, with the help of the blue nurses, myself, became her carer. It was weeks before my mother fully recovered, but dad had help from all of my family.

It was about 2002 when my Dad made the inevitable decision to cease driving. As my Mum 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 me driving them anywhere they needed to go, so I sold my Business and became a full time carer of 3, my parents, my husband who had a full nervous breakdown and a stroke. For Dad who had always prided himself on being independent, having to be chauffeured only further confirmed his deteriorating condition. Now when we went to the shopping centre, my mum used a walking stick and Dad pushed a shopping trolley, not to carry the shopping but to lean on and carry his oxygen bottle. But it wasn't too long before Dad decided even that was becoming too difficult and a wheel chair was purchased for outings for him to take the pressure off.

My son Dale, helped me with Dad, as the last 6 months of his life he had become bed ridden, he had some accidents in bed and my son used to lift him right up and hold him while I changed bed sheets and his nappy. Dad's step granddaughter came to visit once a week and helped me by cooking some main meals in bulk which were then frozen in containers, ready to be popped in the micro waved when needed. As I had no help from my step sisters Jean and Julie whatsoever, As my Mum's health slowly improved, Dad's continued to diminish.

Then Dad had another bout of pneumonia and was admitted to hospital he was very relucent to go as he did'nt want to die in Hospital he said, I reassured him he would be home in about a week and all would be ok and I would bring Mum up everyday to see him, which I took Mum during the day and then my son Dale would care for his father and his Grandmother while I went back up at night to see Dad. 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. Mum was very glad when Dad finally came home

Towards the end of 2002 after all the Government Doctor's visits and Solicitors visits were over and Dad was awaiting a court case for his claim, Dad spent most of the day either sitting in his lounge chair watching TV or resting on his bed. Tramal Tablets 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 had encouraged Dad 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.

Dad 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, and he was advised he would have to put his house up as collateral before they would even take the case.

"How sick do you have to be?" he had fumed.

Dad, 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, but lucky anoth my Dad had kept documents going back to 1959 in England so it was not to hard to produce real documents for them to view.. Dad was required to travel into Brisbane, well over a 45 mins drive. A wheelchair and an oxygen cylinder was taken with him into the city. By then Dad had invested so much of his energy into fighting his cause he became determined to see it through.

During the last few months of Dad's life, Dad lost a lot of weight, his arms broke out in skin sores, which resembled ulcers and were difficult to heal. Breathing became increasingly difficult and often painful. By now Dad had progressed to morphine tablets and if they were not enough and the pain would break through, Dad would call out for me 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 by the Blue Care Nurses, too exhausted by the struggle to breathe. Only then did he finally agree to use a bottle and commode in the bedroom, he used to become upset when the Blue Care Nurses tried to change his nappy and would yell for me, he had become accustomed to me his daughter doing it, and he did not want anyone else, so I was on call 24 hrs a day.

Dad's 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. ( which I would still sneak dad a beer as the doctor said "he is dying and let him live the last days in peace"

Asbestosis is a cruel disease in that it disables the body whilst leaving the mind fully aware of its predicament. A model kit of the Titanic, a gift from his step granddaughter, lay on a table partly assembled. "I'll finish it later", he assured her. The model lay where it was until the day he died.

But as sick as he was, my Dad 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 Mum said it gave him something useful to do.

Every day he read the newspaper from beginning to end. Dad would watch the evening news on the 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.

Dad always looked forward to discussions about current affairs with his volunteer home-visitor, Adrian from the RSL welfare office, who had promptly arrived every week for one year, to keep him company for a couple of hours every Tuesday. Towards the end Adrian would often find Dad asleep and not wanting to disturb him would sit with my Mum, offering her some words of comfort. (I had gone out one day and arranged the Blue Care Nurses to look after Dad and Mum, I came home only to find solicitors in my Dad's room, this man Adrian had bought them in to change Dads Will as Dad had received his compensation 3 months before, and he had said the Family solicitor had died 2 years earlier, he was never trusted after this.)

By the time the news came that he had won his case, Dad 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, Dad'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 a drip. By 8 am the next morning Dad had passed away, with Mum and me by his side, we held him and cried and said our good-byes.

Never, during all this time did I ever once hear my Dad 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 Mum. 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 Dad was the bravest man I have ever known, and is deep in my heart, and is now resting peacefully with no more pain.

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