‘Imagine your lungs being coated in cement’

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Rick Luzaich, 62, insurance salesman whose first job was in a machine shop

Rick and Jennifer Luzaich in a happy moment. Rick, 62, was diagnosed last year with mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer triggered by asbestos exposure. Courtesy of Jennifer Luzaich.

Rick Luzaich took the job out of high school — two years grinding parts in a Minnesota machine shop. A career in business management and other white-collar jobs followed, his days as a grinder fading into the distance.

What he didn’t know then or for many years afterward was just what he’d inhaled during that short stint doing blue-collar work.

He was in his late 50s, living outside Minneapolis, when he began feeling short-winded and ill. Heart trouble, doctors thought at first. Last year, he and wife Jennifer found out what really ailed him: mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer triggered by exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is a mineral that can be processed into heat-resistant fluffy fibers, an excellent insulator but hazardous to health. Companies put asbestos into all sorts of products for decades, in some cases before and in other cases after they knew the risks involved. Items ranged from widely-installed insulation to firefighters’ protective gear. Also on the list: grinding wheels.

Rick, now 62, said he beat out hundreds of candidates for that grinding job and was thrilled by the good pay.

“Little did I know that the whole time I was working there, I was killing myself,” he said.

Mesothelioma, one of several diseases asbestos can set in motion, is a cancer that takes its time. Decades can pass before symptoms appear.

Construction workers and people employed at shipyards, chemical plants and refineries have been among the worst hit in the U.S., according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known as NIOSH. The federal government put some limits on asbestos usage in the 1970s, but the substance is not fully banned.

More than 26,000 people died of malignant mesothelioma between 2001 and 2010, according to NIOSH’s most recent tally. Annual deaths rose from 2,500 to 2,700 during that period.

Robert E. Shuttlesworth, a Houston lawyer who helped represent the Luzaichs in lawsuits against manufacturers, usually sees clients in their 60s and 70s who were exposed 40 or more years ago. Some, however, are younger. Many worked in industrial settings; others were exposed when their spouses or parents brought the often-invisible fibers home on their clothes, or when companies near them disposed of asbestos improperly.

“There’s places in Texas where they closed down the plant, they just bulldozed it, and you get these mounds of asbestos, … nothing but an asbestos hill,” Shuttlesworth said.

In cases of mesothelioma, asbestos fibers have usually damaged cells in the lining around the lungs.

“Imagine your lungs being coated in cement and not being able to be used. That’s what I have,” Rick Luzaich said. “It’s the left lung. Now, lately, just lately, it’s spread to the right lung. … Feels like you’re trying to run up the stairs breathing through a straw. That’s the feeling. And all the time — not just sometime, all the time.”

He and Jennifer, 48, married in 2007 and were an active couple, boating and exercising. That’s out of the question now. So is paid employment — dealing with mesothelioma is a full-time job for them both. Rick stopped selling insurance last year as pain and fatigue overcame him. After he endured four rounds of chemotherapy she feared would kill him, Jennifer left her job, too.

They’ve pieced some financial help together like a patchwork quilt. Rick now gets federal disability payments. The lawsuits against several manufacturers of products with asbestos were “resolved,” said another of their lawyers, Ross Stomel. And friends organized a fundraiser last year. But big, uncovered medical expenses paired with the regular costs of everyday life have left their finances in “horrible” shape, Jennifer said.

She tries to keep her spirits up. She cares for Rick. She raises her children, ages 11 and 12. She researches clinical trials and helped him enroll in two, a way to hold onto hope.

Over it all hangs a terrible question.

“Every day you wake up and wonder, how long is he going to have?” she said.