True Grit: A Veteran of the U.S. Navy and the NYPD Faces His Greatest Battle
Walter E. McAdam Jr. was born on May 4th, 1940 in Brooklyn New York to Walter and Audrey McAdam. The oldest of three boys, Walter always tried to set an example for his brothers, Edward and Dennis. Before his 18th birthday, in 1958, Walter enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves. Upon graduating from Massapequa High School on Long Island, Walter left home, serving a year with the Reserves before entering boot camp and beginning his tour of active duty. He served his country proudly for the next four years.
Brooklyn Boy Makes It Big As New York City Police Officer
At 22, Walter married Joan Froehlich on September 29, 1962. He fondly referred to her as "the best thing that ever happened to [him]" and anyone who knew them as a couple could attest to the strength of their relationship. During their 37 year marriage, they had 2 sons, Bryan in 1963 and Keith in 1967. Joan managed the household while Walter joined the New York City Police Department. After 20 years as truly one of New York's finest, Walter and Joan moved to rural Mill Spring, North Carolina in August 1985.
Today their son Bryan, 41, and his wife live in Pennsylvania with their son Eamon, 10, and 21 year old step-daughter Sarah. Keith, 37, lives in New Orleans with his wife. Walter fondly recalled holidays with family, especially seeing his grandson's first few Christmas holidays and birthdays.
A Decade of Personal Loss: Walter Loses his Father, an Aunt and an Uncle
The last decade had been full of strife for Walter. His Father passed away from a heart attack after a long battle with emphysema, in 1989. Soon thereafter, his mother developed diabetes and blood pressure problems. As she lived close by in Flat Rock, North Carolina, Walter was able to visit his mother almost every week. Walter's younger brother Edward, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis. During this time, Walter also endured loss outside his immediate family; an aunt died of a heart attack and an uncle died of cancer.
Thankfully, Walter's wife Joan enjoyed good health. She had always depended on Walter as sole financial supporter of the family, and he did his best to stay healthy to provide for them. But in September 1997, his life would change. Walter did not know that his years serving in the U.S. Navy and later working as a journeyman would threaten his life and health and drastically change his family's future.
Walter Is Exposed To Asbestos: "We did not know it was carcinogenic...who the hell knew?"
As a reservist, Walter attended boot camp at Great Lakes, Chicago, Ill. His first assignment sent him back home, to the Brooklyn Naval Yard. He was then reassigned to Newport, RI, where he was stationed aboard the USS Dashiel (DD659) as a Machinist Striker. Ship's ranking determined who worked below deck; Walter explained "when you don't have rank (you) work below in either the boiler room or the engine room." As the 'new kid,' he spent most of his time in both, ensuring that the temperature gauges were not "out of whack." The boiler and engine rooms were not pleasant places to work; they were cramped, dirty and filled with asbestos dust. Walter described that "no matter what you did you were engulfed in this [asbestos] dust." Walter did not know that this "dust" he was being exposed to while working amongst the pipe coverings, gaskets and packing aboard the Dashiel could eventually cause mesothelioma - a deadly asbestos-related disease. Eventually Walter 'made rank' when working aboard the USS Norris (DD859), but the damage to his lungs had already been done. Walter had spent too many months below the deck of the Dashiel exposed to asbestos.
When his tour of duty ended in 1961, Walter went to work for the sheetmetal union Local 28, in New York City. He worked as a "tin-knocker" until 1965, with a brief interruption in 1964 when he was called up on Active Reserve status. Walter worked hard and studied diligently as an apprentice before receiving his union card on February 1, 1965. During those apprenticeship hours, Walter had to pack and unpack bags of raw asbestos cement from the trucks. Sometimes, bags would break, and Walter and his co-workers would have to walk "right through" the asbestos dust; he was exposed to it "all the time and didn't know it was carcinogenic" As Walter would later say, "who the hell knew?"
A Man of Integrity: "I just could not do it."
While on the job as a sheetmetal worker, Walter saw a man fall to his death; he was not wearing a hardhat. There was little concern for safety; there were no OSHA regulations; there were certainly no protections for Walter and his co-workers exposed to asbestos. He began to worry about his long-term health and safety; shortly thereafter, he found employment elsewhere.
On February 15, 1965, Walter became a New York City police officer. (He would, however, return to the sheetmetal union for a short period in the early 70's to work on the World Trade Center's twin towers.
His time spent as a member of the NYPD reinforced the importance Walter placed on integrity. He took pride in being a police officer and was happy to serve the people of his home city.
After retiring and moving to North Carolina, Walter found a job as a personnel officer. He wanted to hire qualified females, but was told by his boss he "just could not do it." Stunned, he argued "this is 1996, you can't tell me that!" It was more important Walter keep his integrity than his job; he left after only nine months. Trying his hand at car sales, his first sale was a lock: the couple had done all their homework and was ready to buy - no sales pitch needed. What would be the harm in telling them about the sale starting on the weekend? They thanked him for his honesty, took his business card, and left happy customers, anxious to return for the car of their dreams. Walter's supervisor didn't see it the same way. "That's not the way we do business here" he was told; "Then I can't work here" was his response.
A Month of Endless Testing Leads to a Diagnosis of Mesothelioma
Walter thought he lived a "normal life." Medically, he had been fortunate to have "good health his entire life." He and Joan had just started walking around the church parking lot to lose a few extra pounds. They were up to 2.5 miles a day. Walter wanted to "jack it up," but he could not. He thought it would get "easier" over time, but he was finding himself increasingly short of breath.
While a police officer, Walter experienced his share of aches and pains; he even suffered a heart attack shortly after his retirement in 1985. When he first began complaining of chest pains in August, 1997, however, he knew something was radically different. He saw his primary physician for his annual physical - he was soon after diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
Suspicious that there was more to his increasingly labored breathing, Walter and Joan went to see a cardiologist at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina for an echocardiogram. It was determined that Walter had a blockage in one of his arteries. Thinking this was the cause of his breathing difficulties, the cardiologist repaired the artery with a stent and told Walter his health would return to normal. To Walter and his family's increasing dismay, however, his problems persisted. He just could not catch his breath. He had an allergic reaction to Ticlid, a blood thinner given after the surgery. Walter's allergic reaction ceased after a couple of days, but he continued to suffer complications.
They went to St. Luke's Hospital where an x-ray determined that Walter had pleural effusions in his right lung. He was given an emergency thoractomy, and doctors removed approximately 1700cc's of blood and fluid from Walter's right lung. After the procedure, Walter tried to stand erect but was too weak and dizzy. His blood pressure continued to drop and another series of x-rays was taken.
Walter and Family Anxiously Await the Life-Prolonging Procedure: the Extra Pleural Pneumonectomy
In September, 1997, Walter's medical problems began to escalate. Still undiagnosed, he was rushed to Spartanburg Regional Medical Center as a cardiac patient. There, a pulmonary specialist performed and open biopsy. The results showed malignant epithelioid and sarcomatoid mesothelioma in his right lung. It was the last thing anyone - Walter or his doctors - expected. All attention thus far had been focused on his heart. Joan was utterly and completely shaken when she heard that Walter, her best friend and companion of 35 years, had terminal malignant mesothelioma. Based on this new diagnosis, Walter was referred to Dr. David Sugarbaker of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham & Women's Hospital, Boston, MA, a leading mesothelioma specialist.
Forebodingly, Walter met with Dr. Sugarbaker on Halloween and had a series of tests including stress-tests, VQ quantitative scan and an MRI. Dr. Sugarbaker advised that, should he receive favorable results on these tests, an extrapleural pneumonectomy (a potentially life-saving procedure where the lung and malignant extrapleural material are removed), might be an option. Because of unfavorable stress-test results, however, Dr. Sugarbaker postponed the extra pleural pneumonectomy. Upon rescheduling, the extra pleural pneumonectomy was delayed yet again because a certain medication Walter had been taking could cause extensive bleeding during surgery.
Finally, on November 24, 1997, Walter underwent the extra pleural pneumonectomy to remove his right lung. Post-operative, Walter sill had to undergo extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments administered by Dr. Bradof and his team at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center.
Memories Are All They Have Left
After the extra pleural pneumonectomy, it was extremely difficult for Walter to function on a day-to-day basis. He described going to the bathroom as "a chore. I can't do anything - literally nothing." Prior to his diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma, Walter loved to go camping and fishing with friends. He had become an avid woodworker and had even built a cradle for his grandson. He and Joan had started gardening in New York and Walter could often be found knee-deep in red Carolina clay. They often entertained friends at dinner parties. They often went to concerts, the theater - even driving as far as Charlotte to go to the opera. Walter was a voracious reader, a crafty poker player, and a notorious storyteller. He taught his boys right from wrong, and was proud of the men they had become. He felt great prior to his diagnosis; after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, however, things changed quickly, and permanently.
"This Happens to the Other Guy, it's Never You!"
To manage the continual pain after surgery, chemo and radiation, Walter was prescribed Lasix and Percocet, and it became increasingly difficult for him to breathe without an oxygen tank. When Walter was told by his doctors that the cause of his mesothelioma was exposure to asbestos, he was dumbfounded. He later described it as "terrifying. You live with this [disease] every day [knowing] you are going to die. You go for an operation, they rip your body apart and you're still going to die. It is constant fear. It is all you think about. You don't have any symptoms - just shortness of breath - and then [the doctors] tell you you're going to die. It was a shock. It was like a dream I couldn't wake up from - that happens to the other guy - it is never you. I didn't know what to do. It was like living on a tightrope."
After a two year battle, Walter McAdam died on February 8, 1999 from malignant mesothelioma. He was only 58 years old.