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Mesothelioma Takes Life Of Beloved Middle School Teacher


In 1956, LeRoy "Lee" Joireman was 18 years old and trying to scrape together some money to attend college. For the next 23 months, until 1959, Lee labored at Western Vermiculite Co.'s Vermiculite Northwest Zonolite processing plant on the corner of Ash and Maxwell Streets in Spokane, Washington. His job was to haul tons of vermiculite ore from the boxcars to the ovens at the plant.

Lee fulfilled his dream and went on to college at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. He graduated in 1966 and went on to teach humanities in Oregon middle schools for the next 29 years. He and his wife, Doris, were married in 1982. Doris brought her three children to the marriage.

In 1995, Lee was a beloved teacher and a loving husband and father. However, his past came back to haunt him. The plant where Lee was employed from 1956 to 1959 manufactured and distributed Zonolite products which contained vermiculite. The vermiculite in those products was mined from a Zonolite Company vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. Today, that mine is listed as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, and there is no doubt that the vermiculite mined from it was contaminated with tremolite asbestos, as was the air that Lee breathed as he hauled tons of ore across the plant.

In January 1995, 36 years after leaving the plant, Lee Joireman was diagnosed with malignant peritoneal mesothelioma. The disease remains incurable today, and seven years ago, the outlook on treatment options and alleviation of pain was far bleaker.

Lee was forced to retire from his job at George Middle School that January. He suffered for several months as his abdomen increased in size, with liters of fluid accumulating at a time, until he could no longer function. He passed away on November 2, 1995.

Lee kept a journal of his final, brutal days languishing in pain. Additionally, he wrote a final letter to his mother explaining what was happening to him. He never mailed the letter.

Below is a portion of an article that originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on December 22, 1999. The article contains excerpts from Bill's letter to his mother and from his journal.

"Most of the students from four middle schools in Portland could not spell mesothelioma, the asbestos-induced disease that killed their favorite teacher in 1995. Yet, they mourned his death.

Just before he died, he wrote his mother: "I kept my illness from you to spare you needless suffering. There is nothing you can do to help me, so I just felt it was not to hurt you any sooner than need be.

"The chief doctor for oncology told me very bluntly that I can't think about all the years I won't get!

"He described an incurable type of cancer that I got from asbestos. It goes clear back to when I worked at Zonolite Insulation. It can lay quiet for between 30 to 40 years before it comes active.

"Of all the bad luck I've ever had, this one is the worst."

For most of his life, Joireman's health was excellent.

He and his wife, Doris, bowled, bicycled and played basketball. But in late 1994 he began noticing a fullness in his abdomen, swelling and shortness of breath.

In January of 1995, a doctor found cancer cells and Lee began chemotherapy. Every third week, he would spend at least three days in the hospital to receive the therapy. The price was high. He faced months of weight loss, vomiting and pain. The chemotherapy did not stop the spread of the cancer. Other asbestosis-generated symptoms developed.

"We know there's no cure, only some delay," he wrote his mother.

His wife quit her job as an elementary school teacher's assistant to help her husband.

Arnie Joireman, one of Lee's three brothers, says he worried when his brother worked for Zonolite.

"I was at the plant and I couldn't believe the amount of dust that was pouring out of the vermiculite," Arnie says. "Lee was just covered in it. Even without the asbestos in it, it had to be hazardous. But it did have asbestos in it and no one ever told Lee or the other workers about it.

"It was the way they did business. They didn't want to spend the money to protect the workers from the asbestos, so they said nothing."

Grace settled a wrongful-death suit with the Joireman family last year. The amount of the settlement was sealed.

Anther brother, Jerold, who worked at the plant during the summers of 1957 and 1958, has no related health problems, but he worked outside, Arnie says.

For 28 years Joireman taught seventh- and eighth-grade humanities classes at four Portland schools.

William Staub, a teacher at the George Middle School, said Joireman touched the hearts and minds of countless students.

"Lee was an outstanding teacher," Staub said in documents submitted to the court. "He will remain one of the most significant individuals in thousands of former students' lives. It is an absolute tragedy that his personal talents and teaching skills, as well as his positive, warm personality, are not still at work in room 417 at George Middle School. What a loss. What a man and teacher."

Lee Joireman kept a journal. With the permission of his family, we share some of his entries, which present a painfully vivid picture of how mesothelioma takes its toll:

Sunday, Sept. 24, 1995: It's so tiresome and depressing to be forced to sit around all day.... I took pain pills, every four hours.... My poor Twerp (Doris) has to keep busy to hide her suffering. I love her so much it doubles my depression to watch her and think about her "future." May God watch over her.

Friday, Sept. 28: Too many thoughts of how to take care of Twerp! I must pray stronger for her comfort. Only now do I fully realize how much she means to me. She HAS made my life worthwhile, and even if I don't live to 100, each day with her is worth that!!! Thank you my love for being my wife, in the truest meaning of that word. . . . The hardest part is when Twerp & I lie in bed. I can't put my arms around her. I feel so useless and despondent!

Monday, Oct. 2: The fluid in my lungs is collecting faster. I can't eat anything. . . . I feel very depressed that Twerp and I cannot do "normal" things anymore & make love, go on trips, go to the beach, movies with popcorn, walks, bike, etc. etc. etc.!! Why do we have to "suffer" so?

Tuesday, Oct. 3: Had to be drained of 9 liters again. Doctors said it comes back a little quicker after each drain. My neck and head hurt so much.

Saturday, Oct. 7: Watched Mariners beat Yankees to tie 2 to 2 in best of five. Still taking pain pills every four hours.

Sunday, Oct. 8: My belly is very big and takes my energy. I can't write much today.

Monday, Oct. 9: Same problems -- I hate seeing Doris so upset at watching me "grow" and realize I'm dying. Hard to sleep.

Thursday, Oct. 12: Seems fluid fills up 24 hours after drained!! Difficult to breathe, sit, walk, etc. Feel weak and so useless! Twerp has to do everything. I love her so much that I get very depressed at her "hurt" over watching me get worse each day. Please dear Lord, MERCY!!!

Saturday, Oct. 14: Bad Day! Stomach area swollen and presses hard on chest and back. Can't lay down or sit comfortably. Legs, ankles, feet terribly bloated and ache. Neck and head hurt. Why do we (Twerp and I) have to suffer so?

Sunday, Oct. 15: I watch TV and that's it. I am totally bored and depressed. Life is very "meaningless" as I get weaker and ache so much. Please forgive me, but I DO wish IT were over to stop this useless suffering for us both!

Saturday, Oct. 28: Restless. Need two-hour pain pill. Nurse called and will check me.

That was Lee Joireman's last entry. He died five days later. His wife, Doris, was killed in a fall in her home 10 months later.

*** POSTED JUNE 27, 2002 ***