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My Father, A Hero

Sally-Whelan

He never raised his voice in anger. He was always soft-spoken and kind. He was 6’4” and 190 pounds. Today, people ask me why I walk so fast and I tell them it is because my father was very tall. I had to take many little steps to keep up with his one large step and I never wanted to be left behind. He worked hard for his family and for his country. He served in WWII and was a captain in the Merchant Marines, spending most of his time on the boats that would supply our soldiers and allies with the needed resources to fight and win the war. He also volunteered with the Flying Tigers as a navigator. When he returned home to America, he had shrapnel embedded in his body along with another deadly chemical. Little did he know that he and his fellow soldiers had been exposed to the material that would slowly take their health and eventually their lives.

Asbestos…naturally occurring, resistant to heat, fire and electricity. It sounds wonderful, but in fact, it is a mineral that, due to its fibrous nature, can be inhaled and then lodge in the lining of the lungs. It causes inflammation which, over time, can result in normal cells becoming cancerous. This is what happened to my dad. After the war, he studied to obtain his Unlimited Master Captain’s License as a boat captain. Due to his knowledge and his experience, my dad was asked to go overseas to Egypt after the Suez Crisis in 1956. He became the first US boat captain to pilot the canal after that incident. He also met a charming young lady who was born and raised in Cairo. She was the youngest of 7 daughters born to a Jewish family living in Egypt. After the Suez Crisis, her father was picked up by the Cairo police and questioned regarding accusations that he was a Jewish spy. He was not a spy, but it became evident that, due to the volatile relationship between Egypt and Israel, his family was no longer safe in Egypt. My father helped the family relocate to Canada. Afterwards, he returned to America via Niagara Falls where he and my mother, the charming Jewish Egyptian woman, married.

Fast forward to 1982…I had just turned 17. My father had been sick for over a year. He wouldn’t tell us what was wrong because he wanted to protect us. But, we saw his 190 lb frame wither down to 103 lbs. Finally, my parents told my sisters and I the truth. My dad was dying from Pleural Mesothelioma with metastasis to the Peritoneum. My father never smoked. In fact, he was passionate about health and nutrition. So, cancer was the furthest thought from his mind and from ours. A doctor once told me that Mesothelioma is the most painful cancer there is. My strong father who never ever raised his voice began to cry out in pain, especially during the hour before his next dose of pain medication was due. We kept him home and we became his caregivers. My mother and my older sister did most of the work, taking shifts day and night to care for him. I did what I could but, I am ashamed to say, hearing my strong father cry out in pain was more than I could handle most of the time. He passed away on February 20, 1982 with my devoted mother at his bedside. Something in me remained burdened by the reality of the unmanaged pain of cancer. So, years later, I graduated nursing school and became a hospice nurse. I vowed never to let my patients suffer in pain. And, I am grateful to say, with the advances in pain management, I have many more tools than my father had so many years ago.

Last year, I was invited to go overseas to help serve in Haiti. Again I saw unmanaged pain and suffering. That burden came back to my heart and I knew I needed to do more to help. But, in this case, what this people needed was teaching along with medical care. They needed to be educated so that they could help themselves. I went back to school to learn First Responder skills. I am completing my Advanced Emergency Medical Technician course, and hope to start my Paramedic training next January, which is what this scholarship would be used for. During my second trip to Haiti last year over Thanksgiving, I had the privilege to care for a man who had Necrotizing Fasciitis in his right femur. My interpreter told me that this man’s journey to get to the American doctors included walking many miles from his home on the other side of the island to where he could borrow a donkey to ride more miles until he could get to the main road where he could pay for a taptap (like a taxi) to get to us for help. We kept him in our hospital for 7 days, but the infection continued to spread. My heart broke as I only had a limited supply of oral antibiotics and mild pain medication to give to him, along with prayers for healing, as he began his return trip home. My son, now 17, said to me recently, “Mom, you were made to help people.” If that is what he sees, I am so very grateful because all I see is much suffering and much need. I continue my work as a hospice nurse and recently had my second Mesothelioma patient. He looked like my father. He also had a devoted wife by his side. He came into my facility in a pain crisis, and unlike my father, our team was able to help. His oncologist had already explained to him how he had gotten the disease, so my job wasn’t education, but again to alleviate suffering.

In America, 3,000 new diagnoses of mesothelioma occur yearly. In Haiti, many people die without ever getting a real diagnosis. But, what is true in both countries is that asbestos continues to exist in the building structures. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, many clean up crews reported the sore throat and cough that can be early symptoms of asbestos exposure. The Haitian government admitted that the structures were built with asbestos. And so, the need for education and medical care will continue to increase as the deadly outcome of asbestos exposure continues to show itself. My third trip to Haiti will be in April of this year. I have the privilege of taking basic First Aid/CPR skills to a deaf community, along with physical exams for the deaf children, many of whom became orphans after the earthquake. I feel privileged for the opportunity to help. Maybe it is my way of showing up for the suffering that I wasn’t able to show up for with my father when I was 17. For those who have loved ones battling this disease, I say you are in one of the toughest battles of your life. Continue to educate yourselves, love each other deeply, forgive freely and remember that each day together is a gift from God.

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Last Modified: February 1, 2019

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