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Mesothelioma's Storm


Joseph "Joe" Galarneau, a 75 year old retired laborer, boilermaker and Merchant Marine, was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma around January 25, 2001. Joe and his wife Zinnetta, both originally from Maine, now call Zephyrhills, Florida home in retirement. On April 21 of this year, Joe and Zinnetta mark their 51st year of marriage.

Joe's troubles began around April, 2000, when he noticed a pain under the breast and back shoulder blade on the right side. He went to see his family physician, Dr. Nancy Sibert, at the V.A. Hospital in Tampa, Florida. Chest films showed the presence of pleural effusions on the right side. He was admitted to the V.A. that day and kept overnight. On the day of his admission, he was referred to a staff pulmonologist, who performed a thoracentesis utilizing an eighteen-gauge needle between two ribs in the back. The thoracentesis produced approximately half a liter of reddish fluid. Cytological tests did not reveal a malignancy. The pulmonologist initially thought he might have pleurisy.

Every five or six weeks, Joe returned to the V.A. Hospital for repeat chest films, which showed that a small amount of fluid remained. From May on, Joe noticed that he was losing weight. His normal weight was 205 pounds; he now weighs 170 pounds. Joe stands five feet four inches tall.

On Halloween, a bronchoscopy was performed at the V.A. in which a spot was found on the right lung and removed. Joe does not recall the name of the surgeon who performed the bronchoscopy. He was then referred to Dr. Peniston, whom he saw approximately two weeks after the bronchoscopy. The V.A. operating room was booked for so many surgeries that it took over a month-and-a-half to schedule the biopsy procedure on January 25, 2001. Dr. Peniston made an incision on the side on the right, below the armpit and just at the level beneath the nipple, and harvested tissue from outside the right lung. Joe has been told that the tumor covers the right lung. He does not know if talc was insufflated.

On January 26, Dr. Peniston informed Joe that he had mesothelioma. He told him that there is no cure. The pathology department released its report confirming the diagnosis on January 27.

Joe Galarneau, post surgery
Joe and Zinnetta were devastated. The words "no cure" kept clanging in their ears like a bell that won't stop. They are "joined at the hip" -- their lives are inextricably intertwined. Zinnetta is completely dependent on Joe, as she has long had severe arthritis and fibromyalgia. Before falling ill, Joe did everything for Zinnetta: he cooked for her, he cleaned for her, and he cared for her when she was sick. Zinnetta does not even have a license to drive; Joe has always driven her to her many doctor's appointments. Now they both worry, who will take care of Joe as the tumor advances?

Before falling ill with mesothelioma, Joe was the kind of man who always stayed busy, even in retirement. His son Roy remembers how Joe would work a twelve hour day, walk to the refrigerator, pull out a bite to eat, and go to his woodshop to work. In retirement, Joe kept up the pace. Joe is a gifted woodworker, building wall and grandfather clocks, desks and other gifts for his family and friends. He proudly points to one piece of wood furniture after another, crafted by his hand.

The Galarneaus are tough, hardy folk who retain the accent and to-the-point manner characteristic of Mainers. They've weathered many a bad storm, literally and figuratively. Joe worked most of his life in boiler rooms. He has withstood the heat and stayed in the kitchen all of his life. He wants to live, for himself and for Zinnetta, but right now, he is in a holding pattern.

After Joe was diagnosed, he was referred to an oncologist at the V.A. to discuss his treatment options. But Joe kept hearing good things about the H. L. Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. One of Moffitt's surgeons is Dr. Lary Robinson, a renowned mesothelioma treater and a Science Advisory Board member of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, Inc. ( MARF), a 501(c) not-for-profit corporation which aims to eradicate mesothelioma as a life-ending disease. Joe realizes that Moffitt cannot offer an over-the- fence "cure," but he'll settle for any treatment option that puts him on base and in the hunt.

Sadly, Joe's health insurance would not pay for treatment at Moffitt, so Joe is battling the insurance companies so that he can have a shot at Moffitt's cutting-edge treatment. We are pulling for this wonderful couple in their struggle with mesothelioma -- a relentless tumor that does not respect kindness, charity or good deeds.

*** POSTED APRIL 19, 2001 ***

An Update -- 8/23/01

Joe recently went for chemotherapy, but halted after one treatment, the pain and sickness proving to be too much for this tough, retired laborer. His condition has progressively worsened, he needs a steady supply of morphine to stave away the pain in his right lung, and his body's battle against this illness forces him to sleep much more than ever before.

Zinnetta's own condition is nothing to cause celebration, and as it has become increasingly difficult for Joe to get around, the two of them must rely on their son in Lakeland more and more. He has no problem helping his parents get to the care they need; however, his demanding work schedule, to which he is subject, does not always make it possible for him to get there when they need him.

Joe and Zinnetta are fighting still. According to her, he is not doing as well as he sounds, pointing to the fact that he has lost thirty more pounds from his already dwindling frame. It is evident over the phone, however, that the spirit is still there, despite how weak the body really is at this point. The two are lucky to have each other, and all they can do is stop and wonder how something like this could happen to them.

A husband and wife dreamed of a beautiful, extended retirement with each other, and they both worked tirelessly their entire lives to get there. And now, the certainty of that dream hangs in the balance. Doctors at the VA Hospital and at H.L. Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa offered treatment that would possibly extend his life by months, but would be far from a cure. Both of these treatments however did promise effort and agony.

The Galarneau's don't know what is going to happen. For now, they'll wait and see.

Mr. Galarneau passed away on October 31, 2001