Dr. Bret Williams and his family
Dr. Bret Williams, a 52 year‑old internal medicine doctor, lives in Hillsborough,
North Carolina with his wife Julie and their three children: Christopher,
age 25; Brian, age 17; and Kaitlin, age 15.
His troubles began in August of 2002, when Dr. Williams began to experience
right‑sided chest pain. A CT scan revealed the presence of fluid in the
right chest cavity. In ensuing months his symptoms resolved, then recurred
periodically. He underwent thoracentesis, removal of chest fluid for analysis,
but no diagnosis resulted. On March 13, 2003, Dr. Williams underwent a
video‑assisted thoracoscopy with pleural biopsy at the University of North
Carolina. On April 1, 2003, pathologists reported malignant mesothelioma,
a tumor caused by asbestos exposure.
Dr. Williams sought out the best available care. After discovering very
few treatment options, he decided to undergo extra‑pleural pneumonectomy
(EPP), a radical amputation of the lung, the chest lining, and parts of
the diaphragm and pericardium. He flew to New York City for this extensive
surgery on May 8, 2003 under the care of Dr. Valerie Rusch, a well known
thoracic surgeon. Dr. Williams experienced multiple complications after
his operation. After returning home, he developed bleeding around his
heart, requiring transport via life flight helicopter to Duke University
Medical Center on May 28 for emergency surgery. He was then in intensive
care for weeks, where medical staff had difficulty treating his irregular
heart rate and weaning him off the respirator.
Although post‑surgical complications brought Dr. Williams close to death,
he nevertheless insisted on receiving six weeks of adjuvant radiation
therapy, which made him very sick and weak. Dr. Williams was too ill to
travel back to New York City for follow‑up treatment at Sloan Kettering
and instead received radiation at Duke. He was hospitalized twice during
his treatments for dehydration, low blood pressure, and refractory atrial
Before his illness, Dr. Williams commuted daily to a small clinic in rural
North Carolina, an area chronically short of medical care. He has served
in a number of similar settings in the past, providing free or low cost
health care to the poor. In 1996 Dr. Williams took his family to Bolivia,
where he volunteered to help treat native populations in the Andes Mountains.
He then opened a clinic on Daufuskie, an isolated sea island near Hilton
Head, South Carolina, where his patients included descendants of slaves
who speak Gullah, a distinctive language with African roots.
Because Dr. Williams has always put people over profit, mesothelioma could
ruin his family financially. Still, true to form, in voicing his personal
opposition to SB 1125, he asks the Senate to remember those less fortunate:
I am not a rich doctor. I have devoted my life to caring for underserved
populations. I have done health care research emphasizing unmet needs
in this country, worked in government clinics for the poor, directed a
privately-funded free clinic, and volunteered to provide much needed care
in the developing world. I ask for your consideration not only because
I myself am an injured party - though I certainly am - but also for the
many less fortunate than I, people without money, connections, medical
skills, and knowledge. These victims can't hire lobbyists to influence
your vote, but they vitally need your help.
The case against companies which poisoned Dr. Williams was filed in January,
2004 and does not yet have a trial date. Dr. Williams was exposed to asbestos
during his childhood in Kansas, while working summer jobs, and while repairing his home.
Dr. Bret Williams when his children were younger
Dr. Williams speaking in favor of banning asbestos and funding medical
research for a cure. "Sadly," he said, "the asbestos bill
before Congress (SB 1125) would save industry many millions of dollars,
but would not divert any of that windfall to research or prevention."
March 24, 2004, Washington D.C.
Medical Doctor with Mesothelioma:
"Asbestos Fibers Do Not Respect the Color of your Collar."
*** POSTED MARCH 19, 2004 ***
An Update -- 6/17/04
From Dr. Williams:
Someone recently wrote about pain control; her dad was having difficulty
with narcotics wearing off too quickly. There are a couple of tricks well
known to pain specialists, including 1) adding a phenothiazine (major
tranquilizer) to potentiate the narcotic (such as compazine or thorazine,
both also helpful for nausea); 2) adding an antidepressant, which may
have an effect on pain threshhold independent of its effect on mood (sometimes
people will take an antidepressant for pain control when they will refuse
it for depression); 3) using antiepileptic drugs such as Neurontin, Trileptal,
or Topamax (this seems to work for so-called "neuropathic" pain,
often burning in character, that frequently contributes to prolonged post-surgical
discomfort after EPP); and/or going to science-fictionoid interventions
like the intrathecal pump another correspondent described. Any oncologist
will be familiar with the range of options available, and most larger
hospitals or medical centers also have pain clinics that can be extremely
helpful. Even when cure is not possible, suffering can and should be minimized.
For cough -- a problem that I have had great difficulty with as well --
it may depend on where the problem is. Tessalon perles help irritation
in the lung itself; benzonatate is actually a local anesthetic that is
excreted by the lungs, so it does a great job of controlling cough due
to small airway irritation. When the cough is caused by large airway or
throat irritation (as mine is), better relief can usually be obtained
through narcotics or various lozenges, including the licorice drops mentioned
recently. When these standards fail, sometimes bronchodilators like albuterol
help, sometimes antihistimines like Benadryl or Claritin, and occasionally
major tranks like thorazine.
There is a lot of science involved, but for any individual finding the
right treatment is like trying on shoes; you just go through the options
until something fits.
I seem to have more trouble with cough after drinking cold liquids or ice
cream. I have no idea why; anyone else have this problem?
I'm seeing patients four days per week now, very busy this week because
my nurse practitioner is out after surgery for endometriosis. Feeling
pretty good, but tired by the end of the day. Next CT scan in July, fingers
crossed as usual but not thinking about it much at present. I'm getting
vibes that the kids have surprises for Father's Day this year, certainly
a brighter day than the last one!
Best to all
Dr. Williams: Asbestos companies, bankruptcy trusts, patients and trial
lawyers should invest in medical research
Dr. Bret Williams is a 52 year old cardiologist in North Carolina who had
an EPP in May of 2003. Dr. Williams is a strong advocate. He was recognized
by Senator Murray for his outstanding public service in speaking out in
favor of banning asbestos and funding asbestos cancer medical research.
ATLA invited him earlier this year to speak to members of the senate's
MARF is conducting an
informal survey of asbestos victims and their relatives in order to learn their priorities
when it comes to allocating chapter 11 asbestos debtor settlement trusts.
MARF believes the debtor trustees need to discharge their duty of care
and loyalty to asbestos victims by helping fund research designed to extend
the survival of existing claimants and prevent a death sentence for future
Dr. Williams is a smart, compassionate, and dedicated public servant. His
opinions regarding how each of us can help solve a public health crisis
are entitled, in my view, to great weight.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
From Dr. Williams, dated 9/9/04:
"To clarify my response: I really see adequate funding to be in the
range of 10 - 20 M annually at first, increasing up to 2 to 3 times that
amount over time. I'm having a little difficulty with the amount of
money that changes hands per year. If we assume that 10-20 billion simoleons
will be paid out each year, then about 1/2 % of disbursements should do
it. I would be willing to split this with the trial attorneys. Practically,
I don't think it likely that we'll garner any further contributions
from industry, so the last question is no not because I don't think
they deserve to pay but because I don't think it pragmatic to expect.
Furthermore, I am disappointed at the low rate of contributions by trial
lawyers. I am more than happy to pay a share, but I think it fitting and
proper that they should donate in the same percentage that they profit.
I'm sure their stress levels are high, but we victims do the overwhelming
majority of the suffering.
An Update -- 9/20/04
I'm not going to Vegas next month. Not clear if Julie will be recovered
from her disk surgery (tomorrow morning at 8:30!), two kids on fall break,
etc etc There will be some good science presented there, and it's
exciting that research seems to be gaining momentum. The most interesting
part for me, of course, would be meeting those of you who are going.
To repeat the basic information, the conference is titled "First International
Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma". It's really not terribly
international, but there is one presenter from Australia. Some very good
doctors and researchers will be present, including a few whose names are
often mentioned on this site: Harvey Pass, Hedy Kindler, David Sugarbaker,
Robert Taub, Robert Cameron, Nicholas Vogelzang, etc.
The program on Thursday, October 14 is less research-oriented than the
next two days and includes sessions on care-giving, advocacy, grieving,
and pain management. This day seems largely aimed at victims and families.
MARF (Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation), the sponsoring organization,
is a group financed largely by funds from a couple of guilty corporations
and one legal firm. MARF's leadership is hard at work trying to increase
contributions from the legal community.
I think it important that all of us who have counsel encourage them to
help fund research. Personally, I favor devoting a percentage of all money
that changes hands I mean both funds received by victims and funds
received by legal firms to research in finding a cure.
The two most appalling things about the asbestos problem are 1) that use
of this toxic substance has not been stopped and 2) that virtually none
of the enormous amount of money being extracted from industry goes toward
developing effective treatment. It's easy to lose sight of these facts
as we deal with our individual pain and worries.
I look forward to hearing about the meeting from those who attend. I plan
on going to the next one!
Best to all,
May 15, 2007:
Dearest Family and Friends of Dr. Bret Williams,
First of all I want to sincerely apologize if this email is the first communications
you have received regarding this unfortunate news. Bret passed away on
Saturday evening, May 12th. Julie and the family have made a concerted
effort over the past two days to contact as many people as they could.
In the spirit of providing those of you who may wish to attend his funeral
service with as much advance notice as possible, we decided to send this
email. All of you were included in one of Bret's last self-authored
"Update" emails and I am generating this message using the "Reply-All"
function. To those of you who are on the family listserve please excuse
Click here for a copy of the obituary, which will be posted in various
newspapers around the country. Also listed are the directions to the church
and information on local motels. I have extracted the following details
from the obituary pertaining to the arrangements:
Dr. Williams' service will be on Friday, May 18th, at 11:00 a.m. at
the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, Efland-Cedar Grove Road, Cedar
Grove, North Carolina. In lieu of flowers, the family respectfully requests
that contributions be made to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation,
(877) 363-6376 or www.marf.org.
Again, I apologize for this forum and wish that it were possible to deliver
this message personally to each and every one of you who knew and loved
Bret during his remarkable life. Over the past 24 years, Uncle Bret has
been an invaluable friend, mentor and family member to me. He will be
greatly missed by many.
With deepest sympathy,
Doctor Devoted Life to Helping Others (7/9/07)
More from Dr. Williams
My Kind of Town, Chicago. Dr. Bret Williams' first hand account of the
International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma, held in Chicago, Illinois (Oct. 21-22). (10/25/06)
Dr. Bret Williams to Sen. Frist: "First, Do No Harm! (Associated Press) (4/19/04)
First, Senator Frist, Do No Harm Considering the Asbestos Trust Fund. An Essay by Dr. Bret Williams (4/19/04)