Sheila and Fred Ockerman
In the middle of February this year, 53 year old Michigan siding salesman
Fred Ockerman started having trouble breathing. Fred ignored the pain
at first. A married father of three children ranging from age 20 to 30
and grandfather to four, Fred kept working to support his family.
On March 14, 1999, a Sunday in church, Fred's face was so gray that
a member of the congregation who was a nurse told Fred he should go to
the hospital. He appreciated her concern, and on one level knew she was
right, but he wanted to stay in church. This was a special day of blessing
-- it was the first time that the Ockermans' 27 year-old son would
speak "the message" in their church. Fred's wife Sheila
happily said to one of her church members, "I know God is preparing
us for something."
Now, looking back, Sheila remembers the words, spoken then without a trace
of irony, and says softly, "If only I had known . . . ".
Over the next two days, Fred's breathing grew increasingly labored,
and his color progressively worse, and Sheila finally convinced Fred to
go to the doctor.
His doctors admitted Fred to a local hospital in Flint, Michigan on March
16, 1999, believing he had pneumonia or heart problems. A cardiologist
and a pulmonologist examined Fred. The pulmonologist performed a thoracentesis,
draining about one and one-half liters of maroon-colored fluid from Fred's
chest. This was only about a third of the fluid. Something about the fluid
disturbed Fred's doctor, who said there was "a problem."
Fred and Sheila felt an initial, foreboding shock.
The fluid was suspicious, but non-diagnostic. Two days later, a thoracic
surgeon performed a thoracoscopy and removed biopsy material from the
left lung for pathological testing. About forty people -- family and friends
from the Ockermans' church -- kept vigil at the hospital, awaiting
the surgeon's final diagnosis. Based on what he observed in Fred's
chest cavity, even without the benefit of a pathology report, the thoracic
surgeon had warned the Ockermans that he believed Fred was suffering from
mesothelioma. The surgeon said Fred would have to go home on oxygen and
had absolutely no time. The words rolled over Fred and Sheila as they
went deeper into shock.
The thoracic surgeon referred the Ockermans to an oncologist. During the
interval, the pathologists had examined the biopsy tissue and confirmed
the surgeon's suspicion -- Fred Ockerman had pleural mesothelioma.
The oncologist somberly advised that there was "no hope." However,
the doctor did refer the Ockermans to Dr. Harvey Pass at Wayne State University
The Ockermans were devastated, but they did not surrender. The referral
to Dr. Pass was a turn for the better. Dr. Pass, who is a Professor of
Surgery and Oncology at the Karmanos Cancer Institute, cares passionately
for mesothelioma patients. As Chairman of the Science Advisory Board of
the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF), Dr. Pass helps fight
for the eradication of mesothelioma as a life-ending disease. Remarkably,
Dr. Pass was able to move his busy schedule around so that he could see
the Ockermans within a matter of days. (Dr. Pass' swift attention
to the Ockermans needs is par for the course -- he has a well-deserved
reputation for placing the patients' needs above all else. )
Beforehand, the Ockermans armed themselves with information gleaned from
the Internet, including Roger Worthington's website, anything they
could get their hands on regarding mesothelioma and treatment options.
Dr. Pass offered more than a glimmer of hope. He offered a
plan of action. Dr. Pass said he could do the surgery, which would probably include the
removal of Fred's left lung (he did not pre-commit to removing the
lung -- he would have to defer the decision until he actually opened up
the thorax and ascertained the pervasiveness of the tumor ascites). The
surgery would be followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Fred chose to
go forward with Dr. Pass.
Sheila recalls that on the day of the surgery, "We had a ton of people
there, waiting and praying for Fred. Fred was only in surgery for a couple
of hours. Dr. Pass had told us to expect a much longer procedure. It turned
out Dr. Pass was able to save Fred's lung, which was bunched up in
a ball by the cancer. Dr. Pass was able to peel the pleura off the lung!"
The lung was spared! This was good news and a credit to Dr. Pass' fluid approach -- every
patient is different.
Fred says that the day after surgery, he was heavily medicated. But as
the days progressed, and his doctors gradually weaned him off the pain
medications, the pain mounted to excruciating levels. Fred's immune
system "lost it", and he got a stomach flu. On top of this,
Fred lay day after day on a deep incision wound extending from beneath
the left shoulder blade on his back to about four inches underneath the
left breast. Dr. Pass had had to cut a lot of muscle to get at the tumor.
Dr. Pass also had had to remove a rib. Of these ten long days and nights
of pain in the hospital, Fred says, "I wouldn't wish it on my
Fred went home to rest and recover for the next phase of his treatment,
Gemcytabine. He had seven treatments, one treatment a week for three consecutive weeks,
then a week off, and then the remaining treatments. Fred doesn't like
to talk about the chemo. He endured severe nausea and vomiting.
This has been a very different experience for Fred and Sheila, to say the
least. Fred had always enjoyed remarkably good health. His job as a siding
salesman required him to be fit. Fred stayed active on the weekends, too,
with yard work and, he says, "A little bit of golf." Sheila
breaks in to say with good-natured mischief, "A
lot of golf!" Fred has also amassed quite a few bowling trophies over
Fred was exposed to asbestos while serving in the Navy from 1967 to 1972
as a second-class machinist mate aboard several ships. He was also a boiler
operator trainee and laborer at two different automobile plants in Michigan.
Fred served his country well in the great ships' machine rooms. One
of his performance reports states that Fred set "high standards of
performance in M-division for reliability, dedication and responsiveness.
His sense of humor and his consideration for his shipmates are a definite
asset in maintaining high morale in M-division." Fred received the
National Defense Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Vietnam
Service Medal with one Bronze Star.
Of his exposure in the service, Fred says, "I went in the Navy to
do for God and country, and I'm proud of that. But from what the asbestos
companies did to me, I would have had a better chance of surviving in
the infantry, out in the rice paddies!"
Fred and Sheila heard about the legislation pending in Congress, the so-called
"Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act". Both are conservative
Republicans, and were hesitant to believe what they heard about the legislation
without reading the bill personally. They were so appalled by the bill's
language that they agreed to go to Washington D.C. personally and testify
against the bill. The Ockermans list the harsh realities of mesothelioma:
Fred's physical torment, their mental and spiritual anguish as a family,
the prospect of financial ruin from the "double whammy" of medical
bills and the potential loss of their breadwinner. Sheila writes:
Fred is well known for his sense of humor by young and old. If you asked
anyone that knows him to best describe an attribute of his they would
all undoubtedly say 'sense of humor'. Everyone loves Fred because
he puts a smile on their face!...He has had a very difficult time displaying
any humor since last March. So the very essence of his personality has
been taken away. In the 32 years that we have been married, I have rarely,
if ever, seen him actually get depressed. That doesn't mean we have
never had trials in our lives, but depression is something he hasn't
dealt with, until now. Friends are amazed at his lack of response to almost
anything -It's just not Fred. Part of the reason for that is he has
been handed a shortened life span. He, like everyone else assumed and
planned for a ripe old age. He now lives wondering just when will it take
it's toll and the life span will be far shorter than intended. Even
though he is very determined to 'lick this stuff' the reality
of it all gets to the best of them! It is true that many people wake up
in the morning and spend their last day on earth due to accidents, or
whatever. But they lived their lives with the assumption that they would
live to a ripe old age. They didn't live in fear of when would their
death arrive. Fred lives everyday knowing things are going on in his body
that are working hard to shorten his life span to maybe a few months,
or hopefully a few years. He has become intensely concerned with money.
What if he loses his job? What if he loses his insurance? How will we
ever pay his medical bills? This weighs heavy on the mind of a man who
has always taken great pride in his financial responsibilities and handled
them very well.
Sheila was the director of the Chamber of Commerce in Fenton, Michigan.
Sheila has resigned her job because she has changed her priorities. She
writes of her mission to save Fred, and help the families of other mesotheliotics:
My job[with the Chamber of Commerce] is very energy consuming, and requires
a ton of responsibility and focus. I will be working with them occasionally
on projects, however, now my focus is on Fred -- to research nutrition
plans, clinical trials and anything else that could be helpful. I also
feel it is important to get involved with other mesothelioma families
as a network. I have contacted two families who were both thrilled to
talk with another family dealing with the same situation. Please use us
as a contact for any families that would like to share. Using your own
situation to assist others is the best positive that can come out of something
as traumatic as this.
When Sheila Ockerman considers what the asbestos companies have done to
her family and others, and how the "Fairness in Asbestos Compensation
Act" would destroy any chance of their getting fair compensation,
Sheila says, "It's outrageous. There is
nothing fair about this bill. It is so unfair."
In her "spare time", Sheila hopes to do volunteer work for other
cancer patients. The Ockermans had planned to purchase a garage door installation
business, but now with Fred's illness, they cannot. The Ockermans'
20 year-old son is currently a full-time student in college and remains
dependent on his parents for support.
Fred's humor is now tinged with sadness, but Sheila sees a silver lining:
"Fred was always spiritual, but not quite as open about it as he
is now. He's much quicker to show the spiritual now." Fred agrees
that his mesothelioma "brings us closer to reality. I'm much
more appreciative now. You kind of expect to grow old naturally, but the
truth is, you can't call the shots."
Last Thursday, July 29, Fred and Sheila met with Dr. Pass to review his
first CT scan since the surgery. The Ockermans are happy to report that
the CT scan showed no trace of cancer! Yes! Fred says the healing process
from the surgery and chemotherapy is slow and gradual. We wish Fred and
Sheila all the best in their journey of hope.
*** POSTED AUGUST 3, 1999 ***
An Update -- 8/2/00
March 14, 1999, was a Sunday. 53 year-old Fred Ockerman was in church.
But his face was so gray that a member of the congregation who was a nurse
told Fred he should go to the hospital. Fred stayed in church that special
day to witness his son speaking "the message." Fred's wife
Sheila remarked, "I know God is preparing us for something."
Now, looking back, Sheila remembers those words, spoken without a trace
of irony, and says softly, "If only I had known . . ."
Days later, an oncologist diagnosed Fred with mesothelioma. The doctor
told Fred there was "no hope." Fortunately, this same oncologist
referred Fred to Dr. Harvey Pass, Chairman of MARF's Science Advisory
Board. Fred's left lung was bunched up in a ball by the cancer. But
Dr. Pass was able to spare it by peeling the pleura off the lung. Fred
then endured adjunctive chemotherapy using Cisplatin and Gemcytabine.
Sheila resigned her post as Director of the Fenton, Michigan Chamber of
Commerce. She researches treatment options and networks with the families
of other mesothelioma patients. The Ockermans and other families fight
this dread cancer by helping not just themselves, but others.
More than a year after the surgery, Fred continues to battle. He has almost
constant pain. Yet Fred has returned to work, and recovered his sense
of humor. In January, "spots" of mesothelioma were discovered
around his diaghram. Fred underwent five weeks of radiation therapy. This
included two weeks of neutron radiation by Dr. Pass' colleague, Dr.
Jim Fontenisi. Neutron radiation is a new and promising treatment for
mesothelioma. The Ockermans feel blessed to have received state of the
art medical treatment, from experts who believe mesothelioma can be defeated.
"Even though he is very determined to 'lick this stuff' the
reality of it all gets to the best of them! It is true that many people
wake up in the morning and spend their last day on earth due to accidents,
or whatever. But they lived their lives with the assumption that they
would live to a ripe old age. They didn't live with the fear of knowing
that inside their body a tumor was slowly taking away their life."
"Now we receive every day as a precious gift from God."
An Update -- 1/26/01
Fred was admitted to the hospital a few weeks ago to have fluid removed
from around his heart. The cancer has spread to his heart and esophagus.
Dr. Pass is trying to get Fred into a clinical trial in Maryland. Dr.
Pass did tell the Ockermans that the program usually only accept patients
who are in good shape, but Dr. Pass is trying to argue that. Sheila laughed
at this, commenting "What mesotheliotics are in good shape?"
Mr. Fred Ockerman passed away on March 16, 2001