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On Christmas Day, 2009, George E. Donnelly received crippling news. A day for celebrations and laughter with family turned tragic as his life, along with those of his wife and three children, hung by the barest of threads.
A little more than a month earlier, George and his wife, Pauline (née Callaghan), traveled to England for a much-needed and deserved vacation. During their time overseas, George noticed that he was struggling to catch his breath, and when he did breathe deeply, there was pain, unusual for someone who took extraordinary care of himself.
An avid runner, preferring the shifting sands of a beach to often unforgiving asphalt, George made a point of living an exceptionally healthy lifestyle, sharing a love for morning swims with Pauline. Each spring, George ran in Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, South Carolina, pushing himself to complete the challenging 10 kilometers.
Never one to pop a pill for a fleeting ache, smoke a cigarette or even indulge in alcohol, George was the epitome of health, an envy to anyone at any age.
George and Pauline built a life and a family together, and on that fateful late December day, everything came crashing down. George had mesothelioma.
Within 16 months of the devastating diagnosis, George passed away. On Monday, March 16, 2011, a mere three days after entering into hospice and a little less than a week after his final walk along the beach, George succumbed to the disease.
Sadly, with the loss so fresh and the time to heal not yet completed, Pauline discovered that she, too, had developed mesothelioma. Her diagnosis came in August, and in November, 8 months after George died, Pauline also passed away.
How did two, so seemingly healthy people, contract such a rare form of cancer?
George was a military man, having served in the Air Force and then working in the combat systems at the Navy Shipyards in Charleston. Unbeknownst to him, George worked closely with a deadly carcinogenic material asbestos on Navy ships and submarines, and over the course of his career was constantly exposed to the deadly fiber.
For Pauline, she contracted mesothelioma simply by washing her husband's clothing. The asbestos fibers clung to his garments and as Pauline did the laundry, she unintentionally exposed herself.
Instead of mourning two great losses, George and Pauline's three children must undergo testing to determine whether they were also exposed to the asbestos their father brought home from the Navy Shipyards and whether they, too, are at risk for developing mesothelioma.
The loss for the Donnelly family is immense. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the loving pair will grow up missing goofing around on the beach and spending quiet time feeding birds: all simple, yet significant examples of how George and Pauline lead their extraordinary lives.
Every one that this remarkable duo touched are not only left with beautiful memories, but also, devastating questions.
How many lives needed to be destroyed because of asbestos?