It was on a Saturday––January 29th, 2000 to be exact––that mesothelioma entered our lives. “Asbestos,” they told us, the name of the killer that would eventually take my husband’s life nine months later.
Like any story, I would like to start at the beginning because only then can you understand the meaning of the ending. My husband, Bruce, grew up on St. Paul’s East Side, the second of eight children in a second generation Italian-German family. He attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, working construction to put himself through college. He then went on to teach junior-high science in the Minneapolis Public School system and later was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1970, representing East Side St. Paul families. In 1976, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District, where he served his constituents in the Fourth District up until his death, just barely 60.
He and I first met while Bruce was lobbying in Washington D.C. in 1980. Four years later, I started doing volunteer work in support of his re-election campaigns. Like Bruce, I was an educator, and I believed in his impact. He supported working men and women, our public schools, and those who are poor and homeless, those who do not typically have a voice in the political process. Little did I know that our love story would start in those campaign rooms, working together for a future we both believed in.
Our first date wasn’t until mid-April of 1995, where he took me out to a comedy club. I was 40 at the time, and hadn’t been dating much because I was more focused on work than anything personal in my life. It sparked the start of my life’s great love, one that I thought would last a lifetime.
In early January of 2000, Bruce left on a Congressional trip to Europe. Each night he called to check in, he kept talking about a shortness of breath and lower back pain. The morning after he returned to Washington, D.C., he went to the House physician, who immediately had him go to the hospital nearby. They drew a significant amount of fluid from Bruce’s lung for testing. The following afternoon, he received the call: he had lung cancer. I met him at the airport here in the Twin Cities that night, and we spent the weekend having the conversations you have when you’ve received news like this. Bruce and I had his sons and their spouses over to share the news with them, and then we went to tell his parents––a most difficult conversation.
The following week, we went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. After testing, Bruce’s doctor shared with us that he had mesothelioma. It was caused by asbestos exposure, which happened during Bruce’s construction work back in college. We had never heard of this disease let alone knew how to spell it. While the doctors took Bruce for additional tests, I spent a couple of hours in the hospital library, desperately searching for any kind of information I could find on this vicious cancer. Little was available at the time, so I came up with less information than I had hoped.
It was on Valentines Day that the surgeons removed Bruce’s lung, half of his diaphragm, and lymph nodes. When the toxicology reports came back, we found out that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. In April, he began several rounds of chemotherapy, followed by five weeks of radiation. All the while, Bruce continued serving his people from Washington. He never stopped fighting for that cause, that same vision that brought us together.
Since Bruce’s death, I have been a part of several efforts both in Washington as well as here in Minnesota to advocate for patients and their families. Too often, the corporate interests hold court and control the outcomes on much of the legislation being enacted, especially when it comes to issues like asbestos and mesothelioma. The opportunity to share Bruce’s story has been both healing and empowering. So many only know the word “mesothelioma” from the late-night cable advertisements and have not yet experienced it in their own lives.
I’ve met so many patients and families and have learned so much from their experiences. The “small world” connections have been stunning––Bruce’s nurse during his radiation was diagnosed with mesothelioma after his death and later died. My former teaching partner’s father died of mesothelioma, as did a former staff member from my elementary school. The candidate who challenged Bruce in his last three, successful re-election bids for the U.S. House was diagnosed following Bruce’s death and died a few months after.
I’m doing this to honor Bruce’s legacy as well as to do what I can to help other patients and families protect their legal and constitutional rights. The Asbestos Cancer Victims’ Rights Campaign (ACVRC) is committed to providing a voice for patients and their families as Congress debates and makes decisions regarding legislation that would seriously erode our rights. While awareness and information surrounding mesothelioma has improved in the last thirteen years, we need to continue raising our voices. Starting with signing our petition, I encourage you to join our effort in whatever way you can. With your help, we can take a stand. Together, we can work towards building a better tomorrow and truly make a lasting difference.