Helen Richter is a 75 year old wife and mother of seven children. She was
diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma on July 13, 1998. She was
exposed to asbestos through her husband Bill's dusty work clothing.
Bill was a pipe insulator for many years. He was diagnosed with asbestosis
in the 1980s. After years of struggle with his progressive disease, which
required him to use bottled oxygen around the clock, Bill recently passed
away. Bill and Helen were married for 53 years. She now lives with her
34 year old son, Matthew, who has downs syndrome.
Throughout her husband's deterioration, Helen remained incredibly strong.
She had to be strong. Feeling sorry for her self was a luxury she could
not afford. She never once sought pity or sympathy for her own plight.
Helen had always been healthy. She believed that as long as she ate well
and exercised, she would remain healthy. Her philosophy was simple but
elegant: live well and live long.. But asbestos disrupted the plan. In
late June of 1998, Helen began feeling chest pains and shortness of breath.
She went to her doctor. A chest film revealed a large right pleural effusion.
The doctor scheduled a thoracentesis and drained the fluid.
On July 1,1998, Helen Richter returned to the doctor because of continued
chest pain and shortness of breath. A chest film and CT scan revealed
another right-sided pleural effusion. The doctor suspected mesothelioma
and referred Helen to a pulmonologist. The pulmonologist performed another
thoracentesis. In addition, eight pleural biopsies were taken. According
to the pathologists, the cytology and biopsy samples were suspicious for
Helen underwent a right thoracotomy, decortication (removal of the surface
lung tissue) and talc pleurodesis on July 13, 1998. The surgeon noted
that her entire lung, pleura and mediastinum were extremely firm and covered
with whitish necrotic (dead) tissue. The tissue over the diaphragm was
also extremely thick, hard and white, like a thick crust. Several tumor
nodules were scattered over the lung surface. The surgeon suspected mesothelioma.
The diagnosis was later confirmed by the pathologist.
Upon learning the diagnosis, the Richter family began searching for treatments.
They contacted Dr. Harvey Pass and communicated with him via e-mail. Dr.
Pass reviewed Helen's medical records. Because Helen had sarcomatoid
mesothelioma, and talc had already been added to her chest, Dr. Pass did
not recommend surgery. He suggested that she consider participating in
a clinical trial, such as the randomized trial of "adriamycin vs
onconase" that was ongoing in Detroit.
After careful consideration of other options, the Richters decided to pursue
chemotherapy treatment close to home in St. Louis. They approached their
local oncologist with their decision. He agreed to consult with other
oncologists and coordinate the treatments. In their opinion, Helen was
a good candidate for triple chemotherapy. The triple chemotherapy would
involve the drugs cytoxan, adriamycin and platinol.
After her first cycle of chemotherapy, Helen's appetite increased and
she gained a little weight. The oncologist then determined, after a review
of the literature, that her second cycle of chemotherapy should consist
of cytoxan and adriamycin only, without the platinol.
In November of 1998, after the second cycle of chemotherapy, an exam indicated
that Helen's mesothelioma had not advanced. The oncologist recommended
a third cycle of chemotherapy, using the drugs cytoxan, adriamycin and
To date, Helen has completed six cycles of chemotherapy. She continues
to take pain medication. Up until a few weeks ago, Helen felt "lucky."
She was still able to care for her husband and Matthew and maintain their
bustling household. Presently, however, she has begun to decline, as the
tumor has begun to advance.
The Richters recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary. Their
seven adult children, sixteen grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren
helped them celebrate. Three more grandchildren are expected this year--two
of which are twins. According to Helen, "Bill and I knew the good
life wouldn't last forever, but we were not exactly ready to call
it quits." Every day was a fresh start, so it seemed, full of promise.
We are beyond wishing for a happy ending to this story. This is not a story.
This is really happening to real people who really DO NOT DESERVE THIS
gruesome fate. The Richters are wonderful people. Asbestos has shown no
mercy. When her husband died on March 15, 1999, Helen did not even have
time to grieve. She had her own tumor to contend with, a funeral to arrange
and a 34 year old son to steward. Good news? Matthew lamented when Bill
died that at least "Dad has no more pain." It's a tragedy
when death is a welcome relief to a life of pain and suffering. A tragedy
that was avoidable.
If adversity creates strength, Helen Richter has to be the strongest person
to ever grace this planet.
*** POSTED MARCH 23, 1999 ***
On August 8, 1999, Helen passed away. Her pain is over. Our prayers are
with the Richter family.