All I wanted to do was run, hide, and act like nothing of consequence was about to happen. But then I thought back to my childhood and what my grandpa said to me before my first soccer game, “Just take a deep breath, relax, breathe in, and breathe out, let it come to you.”
The cold air wrapped around him, constricting his breath as if a snake had worked its way around his lungs. He struggled to breathe in and let out a painful exhale. The air was so cold that I could see his breath. My grandfather was struggling for air, as if he was adrift in the ocean, desperately trying to get his head above the waterline to breathe. I could see the pain in his eyes, and the concern in my mother’s, as something was seriously wrong with my grandfather.
The concern was justified as this was the day a fuse was lit on a ticking time bomb with no way to defuse it. A million different thoughts ran across my mind in the coming months, none of which were correct. As months later, on July 22, 2002, my family’s world was turned upside down as my grandfather Donald Dunlap, was diagnosed with a terminal form of mesothelioma cancer.
The building of a bomb
What is mesothelioma? One of the rarest forms of cancer, mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos. The most common form of mesothelioma is medically referred to as pleural malignant mesothelioma.
Asbestos, the silent fuse of mesothelioma, is a naturally occurring mineral which is microscopic in size, yet incredibly durable. It is also super strong and heat resistant. As a result it’s extremely popular in industrial compounds. According to the Center for Disease Control, asbestos was commonly found in construction and manufacturing settings throughout the 20th century, especially between World War II and the 1970s.
If unprotected during exposure, asbestos fibers are inhaled either through the mouth or nose and can become embedded in the lining of the lungs. This, in turn, causes destructive inflammation of the pleura and commonly results in a diagnosis of mesothelioma. The pleura is part of the thin membrane that surrounds the lungs. All of which makes it extremely difficult for the lungs to contract and expand. Other types of mesothelioma can occur in the same fashion in the tissue around the heart, abdomen or testicles.
While there are treatments available, for the vast majority of people, a cure is not possible. The American Cancer Society states that symptoms of mesothelioma, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain commonly do not appear until 30 years after the exposure to asbestos. This is what makes mesothelioma so dangerous; there are countless American citizens, out roaming the streets unaware that they have a ticking time bomb in their chest.
It is commonplace to uncover asbestos while demolishing or remodeling older homes and businesses. And if proper precautions aren’t taken, it could lead to exposure for anyone within the confines of the afflicted building.
What medical researchers are finding out now is that it is possible for the disease to be transferred to another person second handedly via clothes. Similar to how the microscopic fibers from asbestos settle into the lungs of a victim, they will also settle into the clothes and skin of the exposed person. As a result asbestos fibers can be transferred via human contact or contact with discarded clothing.
The CDC estimates that nearly 1.3 million workers currently are being exposed to asbestos. And approximately 3,000 people are diagnosed with various forms of mesothelioma each year.The fuse is lit
In the fall of 2001, my sister Katie was leaving the hospital after having surgery for a soccer-related foot injury. My grandfather wanted to build railings on the steps that lead up onto our deck to help her get in and out of the house. When we got back from the hospital, he was slumped over outside in obvious pain. “He had chest pains and couldn’t catch his breath, I was extremely worried,” my mother, Denise Widlicka, added.
Three months later he was admitted to Aultman Hospital in Canton, for pneumonia. His lungs had filled up with fluid and he couldn’t breathe. It was in that emergency room that he met Dr. James A. Schmotzer, who knew something was amiss. They performed a round of tests including X-rays and CT scans.
A week later he made an appointment with Dr. Schmotzer, to discuss the results of the tests performed during his hospital visit. The doctor explained that the CT scan results showed an abnormality in the pleura and a biopsy was performed as a follow-up. The biopsy led to a diagnosis of pleural malignant mesothelioma, a cancer with no cure. On average people diagnosed with this form of mesothelioma survive between three to six months after diagnosis.
My mother was in the room with my grandfather and his doctor at this time, “He gave him three options to choose from — they could make him comfortable and let the cancer take him; they could try a mixture of drugs and radiation therapy in order to give him more time, or they could try a more radical approach and he could be a participant in an innovative new drug trial known as Onconase.” Onconase was experiencing varying levels of success and is still currently in clinical trials.
And before my grandfather left the office, he turned to the doctor and, according to my mother, said, “I’m not ready to die, I’ve got things to do, I want to be on the trial.”
It was risky placing his life in the hands of a drug that was so unproven. But he trusted Dr. Schmotzer. According to the Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center website, Maacenter.org, the trial drug, “Oncanase was developed from the eggs of leopard frogs and is designed to enhance the anti-cancer effects of regular chemotherapy. Perhaps the most underrated positive to come from this drug is that it has lower toxicity levels. As a result there is no loss of hair, nausea, or anemia, all of which are side effects of traditional chemotherapy.”
A week after hearing about what was seemingly a death sentence for my grandfather, he was back in the hospital. This time it was for his first round of treatment in the drug trial. He remained in the hospital each time for 36 hours, in order to monitor his white blood cell count and to make sure his kidneys didn’t fail as a result of the treatment. “I was nervous the first time seeing him in the hospital, with the tubes in his nose and everything. But the first time he cracked a smile, a sense of calm set in and I felt like it would be OK,” said my sister Karyn Warsinskey.
After the third round of treatment, my grandfather realized he couldn’t continue to stay in his home. The trial was beginning to yield a positive results overall, but was also causing him to lose sensation in his feet.
And, as a result, he knew he could no longer live far away from Aultman Hospital. So he was forced to sell his dream home, in North Benton, on the shores of Berlin Reservoir. “I can’t even imagine how hard it was for him to give up that house. He loved taking people out on the boat, I don’t think I will ever forget how much fun it was,” said Phil Pasko, a family friend.
While he was upset that he was forced to sell his lake house, he was happy that he was still alive. Throughout all of this, he was still working part-time at Sears Hardware in Canton. He was trying to do anything he could to maintain a sense of normalcy and keep his mind off of things. He had given up everything he had worked for his entire life, at a shot in the dark he could hold on just a little bit longer. It had to be extremely difficult to not look at things pessimistically.
He remained on the trial successfully for six months until Dr. Schmotzer switched him to radiation therapy. The radiation therapy lasted for another four months before they switched to traditional chemotherapy. In between these treatments, they would give him some time off to try and let the therapy do its work and also let him regain his strength.
Eventually the traditional chemotherapy stopped working and they were forced to switch back to the trial drug. Twenty-one months into his treatment, everything had stopped working and the decision was made to take him off all medication, except for what would make him comfortable.
I had reached my breaking point, as I walked out of his hospital room that day and turned toward the wall and punched it as hard as I could. It was the most helpless feeling in the world seeing someone you love dying and knowing there isn’t a single thing you can do to help. I had to leave for college in a week, and I knew that this very well could be the last time I would see my grandfather alive.
How do you quantify the range of emotions you’re experiencing in that moment? My grandfather in many ways was as much of best friend as he was a grandpa, father and brother. A sentiment echoed by my father Thomas Warsinskey, “He taught me so much about life, so many things that can’t be learned from a school or a book. He taught me things that come from experience and from having lived life fully. It didn’t matter what you screwed up, he wouldn’t preach, or judge-he would just look you in the eye, crack a joke and go about figuring how to fix it. He laughed and I learned.”
Despite the grim prognosis of being taken off all therapy, my grandfather remained upbeat, even after they told him the end was near. Unfortunately, that all changed when he decided to get on the internet and research mesothelioma. Upon doing so he stumbled across what a mesothelioma affected lung looked like. And as my mother would later tell me, “It was all downhill from there.”
Shortly thereafter we made the decision to move him into a nursing home, so he had round-the-clock care.
The end is not near it’s here
I remember it like it was yesterday. The pain is still so vivid, even eight years later. It was Sept. 21, 2004, and I was sound asleep in my apartment off campus at West Virginia University. Suddenly, I was awaken by a phone call at 9:30 a.m., immediately my heart sank. My family and friends knew better than to call me that early as I wasn’t a morning person, especially on a Friday.
I knew exactly what I was about to hear, and my mind drifted off to that cold fall day in 1992 on the sidelines of the soccer fields in Strongsville. And in that moment it was just me and my grandpa, nothing else in the world mattered, a sense of calm set in. I felt like he was right there with me, giving me all the strength in the world as he knew I was going to need it.
At 9:20 a.m., on Sept. 2, 2004 my grandfather calmly took a deep breath in, let out a slow exhale, and he was gone, as he had passed away at the age of 71, finally free of pain and in a better place. “Just take a deep breath, relax, breathe in, and breathe out, let it come to you.”