Remembering Pete Russell: Air National Guardsman, Father, and Mesothelioma Victim logo

Angela F. de Rodriguez is an insurance adjuster who lives in Frisco, Texas, with her 13-year-old son Ruben – a bright young seventh grader who plays trombone and tennis. Angela’s adoptive father, Pete Russell, was only a few years older than Ruben when he was first exposed to asbestos.

“From the time he was 15, he was helping his father build their family home using asbestos shingles,” Angela recently told the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. That exposure, Angela said, continued “throughout his entire career and service to the United States in the Air National Guard as an Airframe Repair Specialist.”

Pete passed away about six years ago from mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer caused by asbestos. Now, Angela is doing the best that she can to protect not only her son, but also everyone who will listen to her, about the dangers of asbestos and the horrors of the cancer that it causes in others.

“I post on social media and make people aware of just how dangerous asbestos is,” she said. “I educate people on where asbestos can be found, often in items that no one would ever think asbestos would be found. I would like to find a interested group of people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to start a fund-raising project or larger scale awareness program.”

Learning from a Loving Father

As a girl, Angela saw her father as someone who was supportive and full of integrity. “My father never said a foul word, never touch a drop of alcohol, and never smoked a cigarette a day in his life,” she remembered. “He was the perfect father, always supporting me in school sports, college, marriage and was my anchor during my divorce. He was patient, kind and never had a harsh word to say of anyone.”

It wasn’t only Angela who remembered her father this way, but others as well. “My mother used to call him Job—after Job in the Bible. He was always calm, never raised his voice. My favorite times with him, my mother and my son were the times we spend at the beach in Destin, Florida. I am adopted and could not have asked for a better, more loving father than him.”

Pete was a man dedicated to both his family and his country, having served for over 25 years in the Mississippi Air National Guard. During that time, he held a variety of positions that exposed him to asbestos. Sadly, those who serve in the armed forces – including in reserve capacities such as the National Guard – have some of the highest exposures to asbestos due to the presence of the materials in airplanes, ships, and other military vehicles. Airmen were often exposed to asbestos both on military bases and in the braking and insulation systems of airplanes.

Unfortunately, due to the long latency period of mesothelioma, it can take decades from the time of initial exposure to the development of symptoms. During the more than two and a half decades that Pete Russell served as an Air National Guardsman, he performed his duties with the same integrity and devotion that he showed to his family, never realizing that his very faithfulness would be the thing that lead to his death.

Mesothelioma Strikes Hard

“Mesothelioma presented as an upper respiratory tract infection,” Angela explained to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. “I had worked at the VA Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, and knew all of the pathology staff.”

“We were given the diagnosis during Christmas. The hospital let him come home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, then he had to return to have a more invasive biopsy. The physician gave us one option. I had also worked for The University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC) and knew many staff physicians there. At that time I reached out to the head of oncology, Dr. Ralph Vance, who had been past president of the American Cancer Society. Dr. Vance agreed to have my father as a patient.”

“It was decided, after a consult with a pulmonologist, that my father could go to Sloan-Kettering, Mayo Clinic, or M.D. Anderson. Since Houston was closer to us, that is where he decided to go. After 11 days of tests and consults, it was then decided that a pneumonectomy (removal of the lung) was not a viable option.”

“My father returned home and began what ended up being a 19-month long chemotherapy treatment. There were only 2 drugs available at the time and they only had a 40% chance of working. The drugs did slow the growth, but after a three-week respite from chemo, the disease started progressively growing again.”

From there, Pete went to UMC in Jackson for a routine visit. He was immediately admitted to the ER, and remained a week in the hospital. He passed away just a few days before Angela’s 40th birthday.

“I stayed at the hospital every day and every night, along with my mother and my brother,” Angela recalled. “I did not want to leave his side. I wanted to make sure that he was never uncomfortable.”

“Some of the hospital staff were old colleagues from when I worked in research. They were very helpful. I did not sleep for four nights. I finally left to have dinner and rest. Then I received a phone call at 11:58 on Saturday night telling me that my father had passed away.”

“I know that he waited for me to leave the hospital so that he could go. He knew how hard it would be for me if I were with him when he passed. It is a time in my life I will never ever forget.”

Looking to Help Others and Ban Asbestos

The loss of her father has spurred Angela to take an active role in warning others about the dangers of asbestos and how terrible of a disease mesothelioma is.

“First, educate yourself on what products/substances you are using,” Angela advises. “Do they contain asbestos or any related products? Use a safety suit, goggles, gloves and of course a well-filtered mask. Do not leave any part of your skin exposed. When removing the safety items, take off protective clothing while still wearing the gloves, goggles, and mask. Take off all items outside and do not bring inside of your home or garage. Remember these particles are tiny and hard to see. They can easily be brought into your living/working areas and at some point breathed in. The can be inhaled when washing your clothes. You can never be too careful.”

She also has advice for those who are diagnosed with mesothelioma. “Move quickly to develop a treatment plan and treat it aggressively. Once mesothelioma presents, it is often too late – Stage IV. Then it is far too late for any medication to stop the growth of the disease.”