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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2013

DEADLY ALLIANCE: WEAPONS OVER WORKERS

Fight for life measured one step at a time

BY SAM ROE
BLADE SENIOR WRITER
Butch Lemke (left to right), Bob Szilagyi, and Gary Renwand, all former employees of the Elmore plant, attend the funeral of Marilyn Miller, who died of beryllium disease last year. Butch Lemke (left to right), Bob Szilagyi, and Gary Renwand, all former employees of the Elmore plant, attend the funeral of Marilyn Miller, who died of beryllium disease last year.
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Butch Lemke attaches his portable oxygen tank to an old golf pull-cart and begins slowly walking around the inside perimeter of Woodville Mall.

He moves steadily and deliberately, pushing the cart in front of him as if he's fertilizing a lawn. He passes the Fashion Bug, Tia's Coffee, and Perry Cream, where a teenage girl behind the counter steals a glance.

After a full loop, he sits down on a bench to catch his breath. "I took 2,347 steps," he says, checking his pedometer. In 15 minutes, he'll try to do it again.

Mr. Lemke has advanced beryllium disease, but he is determined not to let it kill him.

The former high school football star from Elmore exercises every day, uses several inhalers, and takes a fistful of medication. "If they prescribe any more I won't have to eat," he says.

So far, his hard work has paid off: His disease has stabilized.

"I've always been a fighter," the 58-year-old says. "And I hate to lose."

Mr. Lemke is an example of how some beryllium victims can live for years -- even decades -- with the disease, however difficult that may be.

His physician, Dr. Shakil Khan, credits a vigorous treatment program, particularly steroids, for stopping Mr. Lemke's lungs from getting worse. But the doctor also credits Mr. Lemke's determination.

"He really pulls the full potential out of what he gets out of those lungs."

DEADLY ALLIANCE: How government and industry chose weapons over workers

When Mr. Lemke is not fighting for his own life, he's fighting for others.

One of the area's beryllium victims advocates, Mr. Lemke has written to newspapers, complained to lawmakers, and circulated petitions regarding issues at the local Brush Wellman beryllium plant.

Butch Lemke knows that some of his neighbors think his sprawling brick house, which has oxygen outlets in nearly every room, was paid for from a settlement with Brush. But his lawsuit against the firm was dismissed. Butch Lemke knows that some of his neighbors think his sprawling brick house, which has oxygen outlets in nearly every room, was paid for from a settlement with Brush. But his lawsuit against the firm was dismissed.
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He even bought a few shares of Brush stock in case he ever wants to attend a shareholders' meeting with pointed questions.

"On some issues," says fellow victim Dave Norgard, "he's the only one who has had the courage to stand up against the company."

Says Mr. Lemke: "I just want people to know what is going on at the plant and have tried to protect other people who are working there."

Mr. Lemke knows that beryllium disease, an incurable illness, will eventually beat him. And he knows he'll never be able to breathe on his own again. He'll always have that oxygen hose dangling from his face.

"I told my wife, 'When I die, you keep it right on me. Because that's how people know me.' "

Until then, he is determined to make the most of his time.

Last summer, he went to a Cleveland Indians game, bringing three oxygen tanks in case the game went into extra innings. When he goes fishing, he puts his tank on a bench and casts while sitting down.

Years ago, he was a strong, athletic man. His Harris-Elmore High yearbook has a picture of him in his football uniform, posed as if catching a pass. "Good pass receiver, scoring many touchdowns," the caption says. "His determination and will to win is hard to beat."

Above it is a picture of co-captain Gary Anderson. Like Mr. Lemke, he worked at the Brush plant near Elmore, dying in 1989 after a long struggle with beryllium disease.

"It just grabbed him, and he was gone," Mr. Lemke recalls.

Mr. Lemke worked nine years at Brush, mostly as a machinist, making parts for the U.S. government's weapons program. When he left in 1969, records show, the company said he was in excellent health.

But a year later, while working at Owens Illinois, a chest X-ray revealed spots on his lungs. Doctors gave him the bad news: He had beryllium disease.

Butch Lemke's fight against beryllium disease includes walks with his oxygen tank attached to an old golf cart. Butch Lemke's fight against beryllium disease includes walks with his oxygen tank attached to an old golf cart.
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His wife, Betty, remembers that day well. "When he got home he sat down in the chair and cried, and I sat on the couch and cried. Because the kids were small. And he wasn't very old either."

Just 29, Mr. Lemke was put on powerful drugs. A few years later, he was forced to go on oxygen.

But he didn't live like an invalid. In fact, he started his own business: a computer parts firm. He sold it in 1987, making enough to build a new house.

It's a sprawling, brick home with cathedral ceilings and fan windows. Mr. Lemke helped design it, putting oxygen outlets in nearly every room so he could move freely.

He knows what locals say: Brush Wellman bought him that house.

But his 1988 negligence lawsuit against the beryllium company wasn't successful; it was dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out.

Today, Mr. Lemke says he receives $3,143 a month in Social Security, disability, and workers' compensation. Brush, he says, sends him several thousand dollars in checks a year.

As for his health, Mr. Lemke's goal is simple: Do not get sicker.

Every morning he takes numerous pills, uses a nasal spray, and either goes for a walk or rides his stationary bike. Four times a day he has a "breathing treatment" -- 15 minutes of breathing through an inhaler. At night, there are more pills, inhalers, and sprays.

"I don't have much free time," he says.

Outside the home, he is careful not to pick up germs.

"You have to watch the door knobs, the shopping carts, and when you're done, you wash your hands. When I'm leaving bathrooms, I don't even grab the doorknob without a bathroom towel."

He would like to travel more, but arranging a supply of oxygen in every town and hotel is a logistical nightmare.

"We were going to go to Hawaii," he says. "We were going to do a lot of things."

"Well," his wife says softly, "we're thankful we're here."

Mr. Lemke says he is a realist. "Sooner or later this disease is going to get me. You just don't know when."

And yet he is far from giving up. "If I would just take it as it comes, and not try to help myself, I'd be gone a long time ago."



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