Salvatore Pisciotta 8/29/00
At 75, Salvatore Pisciotta sits perfectly erect, with a dancer's awareness
of his own body. He is poised and at ease at the same time, and very still.
His dress is cosmopolitan. He is lean; he appears much younger than his
stated age. The muscles of his neck -- two long, thick cables -- hold
his head slightly forward, and his gaze steady and penetrating, almost
disturbingly so. His dark eyes are focused far-off and keep flashing like
a lighthouse beacon as he speaks in a raspy voice, unmistakably from Bayonne,
New Jersey, and begins to tell his story.
"I am the son of Sicilian immigrants. I left home on a Merchant Marine ship,
the Boonesborough, bound for Shanghai and the Arabian Peninsula. I have been all over the
world . . . ".
His inner life is as fantastic as his travels; the two are intertwined.
Sal's reading literally transports him -- he is Henry David Thoreau's
idyllic "expert in home cosmography." When he was much younger,
he had read Jack London's "The Call of the Wild", and a
vast, harsh place of opportunity for his will opened. After serving his
country with honor in the Navy and then in the Army Air Force, Sal arrived
in the Alaska Territory in 1951, looking for work as a pilot. He soon
found work as an insulator with the Heat and Frost Asbestos Workers Union
The money was good, but the work was hard, and dirty. Over the next 27
years, Sal was exposed to tons of poisonous asbestos dust, both from his
own work and the work of other trades, on massive industrial and commercial
projects, not only in Alaska, but also in New York City, New Jersey, Washington,
Oregon, and California.
Sal would quote poetry to burly pipefitters and argue philosophy with masons
while his arms were covered to the elbows in "mud", the insulating
cement of his trade. Still a voracious reader, he knows and loves the
works of such authors as Feodor Dostoyevsky, Jerzy Kosinski, Mark Twain,
Dante Alighieri, and Edward Gibbon.
Sal tells me that since his diagnosis, he has experienced time as a torture
and yet keenly appreciated the world's beauty, like the condemned
Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment", pierced
by the sounds of loons crying. We start talking about Dostoyevky. I tell
him my favorite is "The Idiot." Sal becomes more animated, flashes
a smile, and suddenly begins a comparison of the title character of "The
Idiot" with Kosinski's Chauncey Gardener from "Being There."
Sal is amazed that with so many unanswered questions, so many places to
visit -- in the world as well as in the mind -- that there are folks who
live their lives in quiet desperation.
Salvatore Pisciotta demonstrates that a degree is not necessary for perception,
or learning. One must simply be awake -- open to new connections, new
realities, new sounds, new words. He reads Italian newspapers daily to
hold on to the language he heard his parents speak at home.
He started his family late in life. He was 40 years old when he married,
and by the age of 45, he had three children, a boy and two beautiful girls.
After the birth of his third child, he decided then and there to do everything
he could to live as long and as well as he could, so he could fully share
in the lives of his children, and his grandchildren-to-be.
He quit smoking cigarettes. He became a vegetarian. Two years later, he
started his own insulation company. He was in control. The marriage did
not last, but he enjoyed a deep relationship with his children. Sal saw
to it that they went to the best schools. His eyes moisten and shine as
he remembers his daughter Tristan holding the stage as Helen Keller in
"The Monday After the Miracle". He clinches his right fist,
puts it over his heart, and says, "Up there, she
was that girl. I felt it." His youngest daughter, Michelle, studies voice, namely, operatic soprano.
The grandchildren came, and he enjoyed them. He kept in excellent physical
condition. As recently as two months ago, he worked out daily in "jazzercise"
and cardio kick-boxing classes. He and his son Len, a teacher, were planning
an ice skating trip to Sweden for February, 2001. He was still taking
Alaska Air National Guard - 1956
Then suddenly, two months ago, Sal noticed blood in his urine. He consulted
with Dr. Tom Lue, a San Francisco urologist. Among other diagnostic tests,
Dr. Lue employed CT scans, which revealed the presence of fluid in the
abdomen. Dr. Lue asked Sal if he had ever been exposed to asbestos. A
paracentesis was performed at the Mount Zion Medical Center of the University
of California at San Francisco (UCSF). Cytological testing upon the fluid
removed from the abdomen revealed the presence of abnormal mesothelial cells.
Sal's primary physician, Dr. William Schraeder, referred him to Dr.
David Jablons of UCSF. Dr. Jablons wanted further CT scans of the abdomen
and chest before proceeding further. Sal was then referred to Dr. Richard
Hiler for laparoscopy with tissue biopsy. Dr. Hiler performed this procedure
on Tuesday, August 15 at California Pacific Hospital in San Francisco.
Two days later, that hospital's pathology laboratory reported its
diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma of the peritoneum.
Mesothelioma. The word horrified Sal. He had heard of this cancer. It had
taken old friends, coworkers. But he had done everything he could have
to keep his body healthy. He could not believe this was happening. Dr.
Hiler (whose own father, a shipyard worker in the Bay Area, fell to the
cursed mesothelioma a few years ago) was talking to him, telling him that
the cancer was very aggressive, very deadly, and that there was not much
that could be done, and Sal was hearing the words like they were far-off.
It was a nightmare, unreal. Others began to act differently. Sal recalls
that the next time he saw Dr. Schraeder, "He looked at me like I
was a dead man."
Sal searched the Internet for answers. Within two weeks, his testimony
under oath against dozens of former asbestos manufacturers and suppliers
had been videotaped. Hours after concluding his testimony, he boarded
a "red eye" for New York City, to meet with oncologist Dr. Robert
Taub of Columbia University, one of the foremost experts in the world
in the treatment of peritoneal mesothelioma, and a member of the Science
Advisory Board of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF). The day after meeting with Dr. Taub, Sal met with Dr. John Chabot, the
thoracic surgeon with whom Dr. Taub works.
Attorney Trey Smith (l) and Sal Pisciotta(r) during Sal's deposition 9/11/00
The plan, as Dr. Taub and Dr. Chabot explained, is to open the abdominal
cavity and shave the tumor to no less than one centimeter. Chemotherapy
would be administered intraoperatively. The surgery could be scheduled
twelve days hence, but Sal would have to decide immediately.
Sal did not hesitate. "With this cancer, you must attack. You must
go after it with everything. This is my nature." Confident that he
had met with the best in the country, Sal scheduled the surgery, then
returned home to San Francisco.
Sal is not passively awaiting the surgery. He continues to consult with
the best and the brightest, including
Dr. Brian Loggie. No longer physically able to kick-box or jazzercise, he has taken up
yoga, which has helped keep the fear at bay, helped maintain his preternatural
calm. Salvatore Pisciotta is digging deep, entering uncharted territory,
with eyes wide open.
"Before this, I knew I was going to live to be 100. I have a sister
in her nineties. A couple of years ago, she got hit by a car. She hit
the ground and rolled, like she had seen on t.v., and walked away unharmed!
Now . . . I just want to live until they find a cure. And I believe
We believe too, Sal. We will keep you posted on the progress on Sal's
* * * Posted below is more on Salvatore Pisciotta, from one of his daughters:
My name is Michelle Pisciotta-Masteller and Sal is my father. I wanted
to send you a message, reflecting my own feelings about his illness and
how it has affected myself and my family.
Anyone who know my father knows what an incredible human being he is. Even
at 75, I consider him to be one of the strongest, healthiest, youthful,
passionate people I know. He has been a vegetarian for decades, he is
an avid kickboxer, Karate student, Jazzercise enthusiast-believe me, no
one has ever been close, when taking a guess at his age! I have always
respectedhow he lives his life and though I have taken my own father for
granted at times (I think we all do), we have only grown closer over the
years and Ihave only grown more proud to call him my father-and my 2 boy's
Throughout my life, every time I have found myself in a compromising situation,
I have always been able to call my father and know he would do anything
to help. He has always encouraged me to pursue my talents, live healthy,
and be the best I can be. Even though there were times I wasn't fulfilling
all of these expectations, my father was always there to give me a hug,
tell me I'm beautiful and how proud he was of me-always my biggest
fan, as he still is today.
As a Grandpa, my father has been there-to play, to babysit, to hug...you
name it. One of the biggest shocks to my system lately is the possibility
of him not 'being there' to see my 2 sons grow up. This is an
extreme shock because I always assumed that he, out of all of the other
people in our lives, would be one person who I just knew would be around.
Collin and Antonio (my children), are very close to their Grandpa and
as their other grandfather barely knows them-my father has been the one
'constant' to fill that role. He is so patient with them-he wrestles
and tumbles like a kid himself-and though it's hard for my ego to
admit it, he has offered some positive parenting advice over the years
that has been helpful (well, some of it!).
We were recently at a wedding in Southern California together. My husband,
kids, and my father were all staying at a hotel and as we were all falling
asleep, my father mentioned that he may have to postpone the recent work
he had just picked up back East. I asked him why and he said he didn't
know just yet, but would discuss it with me at a later date. The moment
turned surreal as I heard myself ask, "What's the matter Papa-Are
you sick?". I have never really had a reason to ask my father this
question before and as I heard my words and then a silence, I knew the
answer was not going to be, 'No-I'm fine...". My father was
choked up at that point of the conversation, trying to give me the most
positive response he could. He said he had been at the doctor for something
minor and well, they found something. As we all laid there in the dark,
I began to pellet my father with questions-I wanted to know that the doctors
had it all under control and this was something that they could simply
'Zap'-take care of. No matter how hard I tried, though-He just
never gave me that reassuring response I needed. A few days later, he
was in the hospital, having biopsies taken. I nervously called him daily,
waiting for that 'I'm Okay'-but when he finally told me, 'It's
Cancer...Well, that's the way it goes", I finally could relate
to all of those stories I have heard, when someone you love is faced with
such a fight. I tried to keep my composure, but could not hold back from
crying-I told my father that he has always been there for me and I will
be there for him-I told him I was not ready to lose him. He cried and
could not speak for several moments. In all of my 31 years, I have never
before heard my father cry. I have never before heard true fear in his voice.
Well, my family and I will be moving back to California in a couple of
weeks, to be near my father. Even if he doesn't require any help (as
he has never required any help), I will be there. He has loved my sister,
brother and I all of our lives-he has done everything for us. Even when
our parents divorced (when I was 5), he financially supported us, as well
as our mother, until we were grown. We always had a beautiful home, the
best schools-more than we needed. He supported our mother because, as
he always said, "She is the mother of my 3 children.". I could
never understand families with fathers who refused to pay child support.
We are very lucky to have this man as our father.
Well, I know this is a jumble of run-on sentences, but this is what spilled
out when I decided to send you this message. As I have done some reading
about asbestos exposure and how there has been knowledge for 70 years
about the serious health effects, but no warnings were ever given to workers,
I have developed anger. What's so frustrating is that there is nothing
I can do with this anger, as the damage is done-in the form of horrible
Cancer in my father-a man who you would expect to live well into his 100's.
It just seems so senseless to me. Still, I pray every day.
*** POSTED SEPTEMBER 20, 2000 ***
An Update on Sal's Condition
Photographs taken on February 15, 2001, while being treated in New York City.
Mr. Sal Pisciotta passed away on June 5, 2001