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Union Insulator With Iron Fists


The great outdoors southeast of Tacoma left an early and permanent stamp on Tom Reed. One of twelve children, he grew up and lived most of his life in Puyallup, Washington. The son of a career insulator, Tom knew that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his dad. When he graduated from Puyallup High School in 1968, his father encouraged him to get on the apprenticeship waiting list for Local 7. That summer he worked as an insulator's assistant, and his career seemed laid out.

The War Years and Fists of Iron

By the fall of 1968, however, our nation's involvement in Vietnam had become full blown war. With thousands of young Americans answering their country's call to serve, Tom took the initiative and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. The hazardous nature of working four years on the open seas as a boatswain's mate on the cutters Taney and Sweetbriar was almost as hazardous as Tom's land duty: he became a boxer, and by the end of his service had been crowned the East Coast Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Never bothered by his lack of formal training or technique, Tom battered his opponents down onto the mat with sledgehammer punches born of grit, determination, and an iron constitution.

Honorably discharged from the coast guard, Tom returned to Washington in the fall of 1972. Within months his name came up on the waiting list and he was accepted into the apprenticeship program of Asbestos Workers Local 7.

Following in his Father's Footsteps

East Coast Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion

The same grit and determination that had carried him through countless slugfests in the ring found Tom hard at work in the Pacific Northwest, installing asbestos insulation on mechanical systems at refineries, paper mills, chemical companies, breweries, and Boeing facilities in northern and central Washington. The work was hard and the hours long, but Tom loved it. There is a particular satisfaction that children feel when they follow in the trade of a parent, and no one was prouder than Tom to work side by side with father on many jobs. As the only one of his father's 12 children to work as a union insulator, Tom's pride was even more acute.

In 1999, after spending ten years as apprenticeship coordinator for the union, Tom worked as labor superintendent for various companies through 2005. Then in 2006 he decided to return to the tools--an extraordinary opportunity had arisen: his son Joshua had followed in Tom's footsteps and was now a journeyman insulator. The chance to work side by side with Josh, the third generation of insulators in the Reed family, was too much for the proud father to pass up. Just as his father had taken pride working with Tom decades before, Tom knew that working alongside his son would be the perfect way to finish out his career. Tom's father Karl had worked as an insulator until he was 71 years old. Tom foresaw many good years alongside with his son.

Home on the Land

Early in his career Tom had saved his money and purchased an eighteen-acre tract of land in Graham, Washington. The mature trees, three beautiful ponds, and the rural unspoiled surroundings made this the perfect place for Tom and his wife Lorraine to marry, and in subsequent years this was their corner of the world, where he and his wife could really feel like they had "gotten away from it all." In July 2000 Tom's daughter Icel followed the family "tradition," and she got married amidst the idyllic natural setting.

Tom aboard his Lyland tractor, once owned by his father

Tom and Lorraine lived on the property for several years in modest circumstances, and then one day Tom enlisted the help of his nephew to build a dream home overlooking the pond. After Icel's wedding, the praise and compliments on the beautiful ceremony poured in. Tom and Lorraine sat down, looked at the numbers, and put together a business plan that would let them rent the property for weddings and receptions.

Just as he had taken a straight ahead, two-fisted approach to boxing and to his career as an insulator, Tom took on the work of developing his property with the same earnestness and commitment. Seated atop his trusty tractor, this gentle husband, father, and now grandfather worked hard to groom and develop his and Lorraine's "little piece of paradise."

Nothing made the work more satisfying than having the grandchildren come visit. Fishing in the pond, taking tractor rides around the property, or just spending quiet time on the porch with his children gave Tom a happiness and sense of peace that he could scarcely believe was his. Working alongside his son, spending time with his grandchildren, and working at the property had made his life complete.

Shattered Dreams

Tom and Lorraine's idyllic life took a body blow in July 2006 when Tom was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. This aggressive asbestos cancer had attacked the linings of his lungs and threatened everything that Tom and Lorraine had worked so hard and so carefully to build.

To make matters worse, their local doctor did not give them hope. His advice was simply to "take a long cruise to Tahiti."

Stunned, Tom couldn't believe that the sum total of his treatment options was to give up all hope and resign to doomsday. Tom Reed decided to do what he had done his entire life when faced with hard work or adversity: he pulled on the gloves. This was going to be the battle of his life, and Tom didn't intend to be sitting ringside. He intended to swing a leg over the ropes and climb in.

As union men often do, when word got out about Tom's illness, his union brothers lent a hand. The asbestos workers had recently attended a union meeting where Dr. Robert Cameron, scientific advisor to The Pacific Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and chief of thoracic surgery at UCLA Medical Center had given a presentation concerning recent developments in the treatment of mesothelioma. This key information allowed Tom to get a life-saving referral to Dr. Cameron.

After arranging an expedited office visit, Dr. Cameron was able to deliver something Tom and Lorraine had been praying for: good news. Tom was eligible for an innovative surgical procedure developed by Dr. Cameron known as a pleurectomy with decortication. Rather than removing the affected lung, Dr. Cameron would go into Tom's chest, strip out as much of the cancer as possible, and leave Tom with two functioning lungs to continue the battle.

Coming out Swinging

Round One commenced on September 7, 2006, and this time it wasn't just Tom who had donned the gloves. Dr. Cameron had, too. The pleurectomy with decortication procedure involved meticulous removal of the tumor while leaving the lung lobe intact. Within days Tom was walking the halls of UCLA Medical Center. Not content to let the cancer get off with a pounding, Tom and Dr. Cameron delivered Round Two: a second series of vicious blows to the tumor via six weeks of radiation therapy.

It was at this juncture that Dr. Cameron's innovative procedure made the difference between life and death. During the radiation therapy, Tom developed multiple blood clots in his healthy lung, and pneumonia in his left lung. Tom was kept alive by the lung which, less than two months before, had been surrounded by the mesothelioma tumor. The physicians who treated Tom candidly told him that had he opted for the procedure of simply amputating the cancer-surrounded lung, he would never have survived the pneumonia.

Hoping for the Knockout Blow

Tom and Lorraine know that the fight hasn't ended. Mesothelioma is a tough and battle-scarred opponent who rarely gives up even in the face of a full-scale barrage. But Tom's gloves aren't about to come off. Tom says this: "Dr. Cameron and his staff have been exceptional and compassionate to me and my family." Working with Dr. Cameron has instilled in Tom the knowledge that mesothelioma can be treated, that his treatment plan will continue to yield additional days, additional weeks, additional months, and additional time to spend with his family and enjoy his life.

"I wouldn't even know about Dr. Cameron if my lawyer, Roger Worthington, hadn't educated me. It's made all the difference in the world," Tom says. Dr. Cameron manages the Punch Worthington Research (PWR) Lab, a non-profit medical foundation dedicated to the memory of Punch Worthington, Ph.D., of Salem, Oregon, who recently passed away from asbestos lung cancer. The PWR lab is researching novel mechanisms for the early detection and treatment of asbestos cancer, as well as ways to reduce the risk of cancer among exposed workers.

** POSTED JANUARY 22, 2007 **

Mr. Reed passed away on September 8, 2007