Guest Commentary

Guest commentary: Bill in Jefferson City would add to asbestos victims’ pain

HB 333 in the Missouri General Assembly would keep the victims of asbestos from proper compensation, writes guest commentator Susan DeGhelder.
HB 333 in the Missouri General Assembly would keep the victims of asbestos from proper compensation, writes guest commentator Susan DeGhelder. /The Kansas City Star

My husband, Joe, was many things. Gregarious. Charming. Never met a stranger. World’s biggest Royals fan. But fashionable was not one of them.

I’ll never forget our first date. It was the summer of 1968. I was wearing a bright pink dress. He showed up at my door wearing a fluorescent orange shirt and orange and black checked pants.

“Where did you get that outfit?” I asked, trying not to laugh.

“Isn’t it great?” he said. “I have one in fluorescent green, too!”

Maybe after serving four years as a Navy electrician — wearing regulation Navy uniforms — the flashy fashions were his way of making a statement. In any case, he made a lasting impression on me. Two months later, he asked me to marry him. We spent the next 46 years and two months doing everything together. Going to the movies. Going to church. Eating dinner. Raising three sons. Enjoying our grandkids. He even helped me put my shoes on when I was in pain after back surgery.

It has been two years since I lost him, and for the longest time I couldn’t shake the feeling that at the end of the day he’d walk in the door. The vows might say “until death do us part,” but that’s not accurate, because death hasn’t changed how tightly our lives were intertwined. We married young and grew up together. Without him, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

That’s why it’s so hard for me to understand why the Missouri General Assembly would introduce legislation that would make life harder for grieving families like mine.

Joe was always so healthy. He worked part time even in retirement. So when he slipped on a step, caught himself with his arm and was in pain, we didn’t think much of it. He went to the doctor and started physical therapy. But the pain kept getting worse, so the doctor ordered an MRI. That same day, the doctor ordered a CAT scan. I could see that there was something in the lining of his lungs.

Joe was sent to a lung specialist, then a pulmonary surgeon. The surgeon mentioned mesothelioma. I had heard of it, but I didn’t understand what it was. A biopsy confirmed that that’s what we were dealing with. Both the doctor and nurse had tears in their eyes when they told us.

Mesothelioma is a rare, deadly form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. In Vietnam, Joe constantly worked with equipment that contained asbestos on his ship. No gloves, no masks, no anything. It’s estimated that nearly one in three mesothelioma victims are veterans like Joe. He also was exposed to asbestos during his work before and after his time in the Navy.

It’s no surprise he got sick — we’ve known for more than a century that asbestos kills people. The bigger surprise is that the Missouri General Assembly would try to make it harder for veterans like Joe to receive compensation for their medical expenses and suffering. And they do suffer. I was a nurse for 46 years and I’ve seen a lot of sick people. But nothing like this. Joe was in severe pain and literally wasted away. I watched the strong man I’d married grow weaker by the day. Less than a year later, he was gone.

This legislation, HB 333, would make it much harder — if not impossible — for mesothelioma victims to get their day in court. It would give the companies that make these dangerous products the ability to run out the clock until victims like Joe die, denying justice to families like mine.

Without compensation, I would have lost the house and car — everything. I would have gone bankrupt. Instead, I’m able to keep living. Why would the Missouri General Assembly deny this protection to other veterans’ families?

Joe could have been bitter, but he never was. To the end, he remained proud of his service in the Navy and proud that our son Ryan followed in his footsteps. He was even prouder that all three of his sons became die-hard Royals fans, just like him. The boys, they just miss their dad. We all have holes in our hearts that will never be filled.

If I could tell the members of the General Assembly one thing, it would be this: It’s time to stand on the side of Missouri veterans who are suffering. People like Joe fought for you. It’s time you return the favor.

Susan “Susie” DeGhelder lives in Kansas City. Her husband, Joe, died of pleural mesothelioma in March 2015.