Carrie West Harper is a small business owner in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and two daughters, ages 12 and 7. From time to time, Carrie’s children ask her about their grandfather who died when they were both very young from an asbestos-related disease of the lungs.
“They feel left out that they don’t know him,” Carrie recently told the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance (MCA), “and we all feel cheated that he couldn’t spend out his older years spreading his joyful spirit.”
Carrie’s father also passed away before getting to meet her nephew. “We found out soon after his death my sister was pregnant,” Carrie said. “My Dad never met his grandson.”
Now, Carrie is determined to make sure that others are aware of the terrible chemical that killed her father, and she’s working hard to bring awareness to anyone who will listen.
Illness for a Life of Love and Service
“My Dad, Al, was a symbol of love and acceptance in my life,” Carrie remembered in her interview with MCA. “He never met a stranger and had a mission to make everyone feel welcome in his presence, even on the bus or at the store.”
Al was a hard worker, but his professional jobs never compared with the true loves of his life. “Dad had several careers, including the National Guard and a short stint at the Newport News Shipyard,” Carrie explained. “But he cared more about family and his hobby, his classic cars, than a job or career.”
Unfortunately, the jobs that Al used to support his family also exposed him to asbestos. “Dad worked at the Newport News Shipyard when he was fresh out of high school,” Carrie said, “and just for a couple of years, around 1961-1963. He started complaining about fluid in his lungs and had trouble catching his breath around 2009, roughly 45 years later. It was found out upon his visits to the doctors that he had asbestosis, and the place he had worked with asbestos present was the Newport News Shipyard.”
Shipyard workers have some of the highest incidences of asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, and pleural plaques, among others. Asbestos was often used in ships as insulation to prevent and contain shipboard fires. As such, the shipyard workers were exposed over and over to this dangerous material when building, repairing, and decommissioning ships. As in Al’s case, even relatively short exposure can lead to deadly consequences.
Living with Asbestos Disease
“My youngest child was born around this time,” Carrie recalled of the period just after her father’s diagnosis, “and my sister also had a child. He got some time with those grandchildren, though they were very young. Nothing was more important than his children and grandchildren, so I choose to believe that he knows how beautifully they are growing up.”
The time Al got to spend with his grandchildren was limited, however. The life expectancy of mesothelioma patients is very short, usually between 6 and 12 months. About half live 2 years after diagnosis, and only a handful live 5 years or longer.
“The last time we actually saw him, he was connected to oxygen, and couldn’t talk with us for long before he became exhausted,” Carrie said. “He was skinny in his face, but the tumors were visibly taking over his torso. My oldest child didn’t recognize him and hid behind the furniture when we arrived at my parents’ house.”
Al underwent the standard cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation. “Some days, he was extremely sick, especially in the radiation phase,” Carrie told MCA. “About a year into these treatments, the doctors told him they were losing and there was nothing they could do. I was coming out of a traumatic surgery when I heard my father was going into hospice.”
“Three weeks after the last time my children saw my father alive, my mother called me and told me the end was coming very soon,” Carrie continued. “I hopped on a plane the following day.”
When she arrived at her father’s bedside, however, Al was unconscious. “My mother was giving him morphine on a schedule,” she said. “I could tell that he was very swollen under his clothes. His arms were wet from seeping water through his skin. I read to him and sat by his side, knowing the angels were on their way. A few minutes later, he was gone.”
Calling for Awareness and a Ban
Given her father’s experience with asbestos, and the family’s loss due to the deadly substance, Carrie is pushing for a ban.
“It’s mind boggling that we can’t even stand up for our own people and put our foot down about asbestos,” Carrie insisted. “Mesothelioma is not a theory. It’s murder by cancer.”
“It’s not a question of whether an exposed person will die, but just how brutal that death will be,” Carrie continued. “My mission is in education, because that is my gift. I will continue to do my part. The lesson is simple: there is just no way that killing innocent people by peaceful chemical warfare should ever be acceptable.”