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Neither Sloan Kettering Nor MD Anderson Able To Help


On June 5, 1998, Sharon Briscoe was a 55-year-old married mother of two grown sons who was living in Richardson, Texas. That day, she became fiercely ill at work. She went home and slept for hours. A sales associate for a major department store, she returned to work the next morning. Sharon's supervisor sent her home after she again became ill. Sharon's husband Harold was battling pneumonia at the same time, so she kept dragging herself to work, then coming home to take care of her home, Harold, and Harold's yard work. Sharon was very short of breath and tired.

Eleven long days later, Sharon took Harold to the doctor on June 16, 1998. Sharon explained to the doctor that she felt short of breath, fatigued and nausea to the point of vomiting. Sharon asked if she might have pneumonia, too. Her physician immediately ordered a chest film. Two weeks passed with no word concerning the chest film.

On June 26, 1999, Sharon returned to her doctor, who was concerned. Sharon looked jaundiced, and tired. With her history of weight loss, vomiting and exhaustion, the doctor first thought Sharon had hepatitis. He placed a stethoscope on Sharon's back, listened carefully, and heard fluid. He called the hospital where the chest x-ray had been taken and found that it had never been read. Eventually a doctor did read it, who confirmed the presence of fluid in the right chest cavity, which raised the possibility of tumor.

Sharon's doctor referred her to a pulmonary specialist, who performed a right thoracentesis on July 2, 1998, draining 1500 cc of fluid from her right chest cavity. Initially, this procedure provided Sharon some relief. A post-procedure chest film revealed that there was still significant pleural fluid around the right lung. The specialist scheduled a repeat thoracentesis to evacuate the remaining fluid.

On July 7, 1998, the pulmonary specialist drained another 1500 cc of bloody fluid.

While cytology from the first thoracentesis was not yet complete, the specialist felt that Sharon had either a significant tumor or, possibly but less likely, a rheumatoid effusion. The doctor decided to wait for the cytology report before scheduling any other procedure such a thoroscopy or a closed pleural biopsy.

Cytology from both thoracenteses was inconclusive.

On September 3, 1998, a surgeon performed an exploratory thoracotomy on Sharon. He made a small incision near the armpit and removed two liters of fluid. The surgeon searched the pleural cavity and unfortunately found studding along the pleural and diaphragmatic surfaces. He took several biopsies, which conclusively diagnosed mesothelioma. The surgeon placed talc in the pleural space to prevent further accumulation of fluid. Both the pulmonary specialist and the surgeon urged the medical community at M.D. Anderson in Houston, Texas to see Sharon immediately.

Sharon had been told that she might be eligible for pleurectomy. She traveled to M.D. Anderson for consultation and possible surgery. However, she learned that the thoracic surgeons at M.D. Anderson did not perform pleurectomies. Rather, M.D. Anderson offered her a randomized trial with Onconase and Doxorubicin. After much consideration, the family decided to seek the medical opinion of Dr. Valerie Rusch at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

The Briscoe's met with Dr. Rusch at Sloan-Kettering in early October. After a series of tests, Dr. Rusch determined that because of the tumor's size, surgery was not yet an option. They hoped chemotherapy would shrink the tumor sufficiently to permit surgery.

Mrs. Briscoe returned to M.D. Anderson for another consultation regarding chemotherapy. Oncologists at M.D. Anderson explained that there was no standard chemotherapy for the treatment of mesothelioma, but that the combination of Cytoxin, Doxorubicin (also called Adriamycin) and Cisplatin had produced reasonable results. Sharon wished to be treated near home, so doctors at M.D. Anderson referred her to an oncologist in Richardson, Texas.

From late November of 1998 to February of 1999, she had four two-day sessions of chemotherapy administered intravenously at a local Dallas hospital. The first day lasted five hours and the second day another four hours. She suffered horrifying side effects from her first treatment. Sharon stated, "It was though I had drank lighter fluid. And that's all I could taste or smell for two weeks, and it was sickening." Sharon did not want to return for further treatment; she wanted to "shoot herself".

A humiliating side effect was hair loss. A very attractive woman, Sharon was particularly proud of her hair, which was thick, full-bodied, and styled to perfection. After chemotherapy, Sharon recounted that "I got in the shower and when I rinsed my hair, my hair ran down over my face. And I looked down and the drain was covered with hair and I panicked."

After months of struggling with the regimen of chemotherapy, weight loss and weakness, Sharon developed pneumonia. On January 11, 1999, she was rushed to the hospital where she spent nine grueling days, six of them in critical care, fighting for her life.

Sharon's family kept an ongoing vigil throughout her hospitalization. Doctors counseled the family, preparing them for her death. But Sharon surprised them all by rallying against the pneumonia, and she returned home. Although she was reliant upon oxygen twenty-four hours a day, weak and unable to do anything but lie on the sofa, Sharon kept her optimistic outlook to help her family cope with her tragic illness.

Part of the Briscoe tragedy is the manner of Sharon's exposure to asbestos.

Sharon never worked as an insulator, a pipefitter or a boilermaker. For most of her life, Sharon was a homemaker, providing a warm, loving home for her husband and their two sons, John, a professional baseball player; and Craig, a compensation analyst. Sharon was an "outdoors" person. She took great joy in yard work. She weeded meticulously. She pruned and trimmed her hedges, and planted flowers with loving hands. She boasted of the most beautiful lawn in the neighborhood. She loved to throw pool parties for friends.

But much earlier in her life, Sharon had lived with her brother, a drywaller, in Kansas City, Kansas. Sharon's brother worked with asbestos-containing products all the time, and he literally brought his work home with him in the form of asbestos dust on his clothes. Sharon's brother was the innocent and unwitting courier of her mesothelioma.

In February of 1999, Sharon told us the hardest part about having mesothelioma was knowing that her "life was almost over". We are saddened to say that Sharon's courageous battle ended on April 6, 1999.

*** POSTED JUNE 17, 1999 ***