When she was hospitalized in 2008 for stomach pain, the 56-year-old Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., homemaker and grandmother had no idea she would be dead scant months later.
Initially, she thought the pain was somehow connected to the appendix removed in her teen years, since it felt similar. But no. A CAT scan revealed intestinal blockage, which doctors promptly removed.
Then came word from the laboratory where a biopsy of the blockage was analyzed: Cancer.
And not just any cancer, but peritoneal mesothelioma cancer —a relentlessly aggressive killer that defies treatment and brings death relatively soon after diagnosis.
“We were stunned,” recalls the woman’s husband, a retired mechanic now living in Richfield, N.J. “She got sick Memorial Day weekend. By Christmas she was gone.”
The retired mechanic says there were times, watching his wife suffer from the cancer, that he prayed to trade places with her. “I would have traded places in a heartbeat —in less than a heartbeat. She was important; I wasn’t.”
Unwitting Cause of Death
The news that she was going to die long before her time hit the woman hard. But it hit her husband harder.
“She was my soul mate; we were best friends, partners,” says the ex-mechanic, whose emotional wounds at the time were rubbed all the more raw by the realization that his wife died because of jobs he held in the early Seventies.
From 1970-72, the man was employed as a brake mechanic at a North Bergen, N.J., garage. After that, until 1974, he repaired car brakes as a sideline.
Unfortunately, the brake components he used during those periods contained deadly asbestos. So, when he worked on a set of brakes, it routinely happened that asbestos-laced dust would billow from removed drums and worn pads or linings. Some of this dust settled on his clothes. And there the dust remained until, back at home, his wife shook it off in preparation for laundering those garments in their washing machine.
That’s how she came to be exposed to asbestos and then, more than three decades later, joined an estimated 3,000 other Americans who, in 2008, contracted mesothelioma of either the lungs or peritoneum.
Still a mystery
Scientists have studied at length the asbestos-mesothelioma connection, but remain perplexed as to how exposure to asbestos triggers mesothelioma cancer. They know only that asbestos exposure is the most common cause of mesothelioma, that mesothelioma is generally fatal within eight to 16 months of initial onset of symptoms, and that people who worked with asbestos products before the federal government banned further manufacture of such wares beginning in the late 1960s are the most likely to develop the horrific disease.
“I blamed myself for what happened because I brought it [the asbestos dust] home with me, day after day,” says the Richfield man. “Nobody told us this stuff was bad.”
Compounding that anguish was an awareness that he himself might eventually suffer the same fate because his own asbestos exposure was all the more direct. “It could be just a matter of time,” he says, adding that, thus far, he is mesothelioma symptom-free.
Then, too, there was the painful need to devise delicate answers to the questions of his four young grandchildren, who wanted to know why Grandma wasn’t looking like Grandma any more (the disease as it progressed emaciated her) and, after her death, who would decorate the house for Christmas (the holiday, and all that it entailed, was one of the woman’s passions).
Decided to fight back
Later, the former mechanic’s profound grief turned to anger against the makers of the asbestos-laced products he had used.
“At first, I didn’t want to sue, even though I was mad as hell,” he remembers. “But my son and daughter told me that going to court to try to get justice was something I had to do because it was morally wrong to let these companies get away with this. If for nothing else, do it for Mom, they kept telling me. And, even if you lose, the fact that you took action makes the voices of those people in the same situation as us a little louder.”
“It’s the right thing to do, they said.”
He then decided he owed it to his children and grandchildren to seek compensation. “My wife was gone and maybe before long I’d be gone too. I figured that, if I won against the companies that were responsible, the award would take care of my family’s needs down the road, send my grandkids to college —the oldest is 12 now, the youngest is 8.”
Weitz & Luxenberg offer help
At that point, the retiree turned to Weitz & Luxenberg, drawn by the New York-based personal injury law firm’s lengthy history of taking on asbestos-product makers, suppliers and retailers.
“My daughter told me about the personal injury lawyers of Weitz & Luxenberg,” he says. “So I phoned them and told them my story. They were very caring, very supportive right from the start. They were understanding of what I was going through, especially when I broke down and started crying. You could hear the supportiveness in their voices. They were really nice people. They treated me decent.”
The husband through his Weitz & Luxenberg mesothelioma lawyers brought suit in New Jersey Superior Court on behalf of his deceased wife. The year was 2009. Named as defendants were several past makers and suppliers of automotive friction brakes.
In 2011, Weitz & Luxenberg obtained for the husband a sizable settlement from the defendants.
“Weitz & Luxenberg were excellent,” he said.”I can’t praise them enough. It was clear they knew what they were doing. They did a great job. Looking back, I’m glad I made that call to them.”