Health: `I have to get this down on paper ... it will be too bloody scary later on'

This is the letter Barbara Birchall, 56, wrote from her adoptive home in Australia to her family in Lancashire. She had just been told she had mesothelioma, caused by working with blue asbestos more than 30 years previously, and had only a year to live. Last Wednesday, aided by the Oldham solicitor John Pickering, she won pounds 110,000 damages from her erstwhile employers. But her health is sadly and irreversibly failing.
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The Independent Online
June-July 1997

Dear Family,

Hi, this letter will be mixed up more than usual. I daren't let my thoughts connect. It's all happened so fast. Can't believe it, really. Our Michael says he feels like a mushroom kept in the dark, but so do John and I.

How can I have this big hard nasty inside me all this time and not know. Was all mystery pains this? I thought it was just me. How can a thing creep, grow so silently, wrap itself around you, take control over your lung. Then, when it's stronger than you, and only then, it gives you hard pain that never goes away, to say, I'm in control now.

What a bastard - fresh, gritty, sticky, fluffy blue asbestos sits there all so quietly for around 30 years then says, here I am - nasty, strong and deadly.

I have to get this down on paper while my mind is in shock. It will be too bloody scary later on. I need something to fight with to make me strong again. I'm just not ready to give up. I like living, even though we are still in this very bad patch.

John and I are nearly there. We have worked so hard. John has done this wonderful bathroom and kitchen all by himself, made that wonderful garden from the tip. And he is in poor health himself. Thank God I know and feel God inside me, I really need him now. But in this world, bad man wins.

I fell over a piece of string outside of Safeway and thought I had pulled my shoulder; not a mark on me. That was 9 May. Three weeks later the pain just won't move. Funny this, I thought, and went to the doctor. My doctor had moved so I had to find a new one, otherwise maybe I would have gone sooner. But it would have made no difference. Asbestos hides for years, then, wham!

Doctor sent me for X-rays, 19 June, something there, don't know what. Sent for cat-scan for better check, 27 June.

Monday 30 June, 6.30pm. I went to see this lady surgeon. Walked into her office, she came in behind us, we all sat down. I got a form to fill in. She said she would explain my cat-scan, step by step. She put it up under the light and the horror was there before your eyes. I said, "How can you help me?" She gave me a special look and said, gently, "It's too late for you, my dear." I heard John gasp and nearly double over. So I said, "Can't you cut the whole lung away?" She said, "No, my dear, it's come through your ribs. That's why you have pain all the time." So I said, "Cut all the ribs away." She said, "One cannot live without ribs." All I could think of at that moment was thank God I like her. I could not have borne it if I didn't like the person who said that to me.

We got up and left the office. Someone was waiting for her outside. I squeezed her hand in passing. We got to the car and John broke down. I am just numb. We had to go for a little walk so he could pull himself together to drive us home.

I have to tell my children and my parents who are both alive, in their eighties (I come from a good stock), that I have been cheated out of 30 or more years.

That's thanks to you, Turner Brothers. We worked for you in the fluffy blue snow. You never said it got on your lungs and just lay there for 20 to 30 years. You knew something because you gave us all those X-rays early on. But no masks, as we had to spit on our fingers to make it stick quick. We were on piecework, remember. I damn you and blue asbestos as it grows like buggery in me.

I went to work at Turner Brothers in my 17th year, 1958. I went there to find work as it was nearer to my home.

By September 1962 I felt I had had enough of working not by fair rules. To send out good work you need good material, that meant good rolls off the card machines. Between good work and bad is a big difference. A good roll will run nearly all the way through without a break.

I was a quiet girl and a good worker. The woman on the frames in front of me was a shocking, poor spinner and was getting all the best stuff by bribery. This went on a lot. I felt the bosses knew this but did nothing. This work practice got to me so much I couldn't take it any more. One Thursday morning I went for a fresh job without telling anyone. I got taken on at a catalogue firm. Went into work after lunch, went on to my frames and started work as usual. The leading hand came over and said, "Bill the boss wants to see you in his office." So off I went.

Bill said, "Where the hell have you been?" Then I felt all the rage come pouring out. First I said, "It's all right for you, sat on your arse in this office while we work our guts out, getting all the shit while the shabby workers get the best. All them backhands and foul play, its just not bloody right."

So my boss said, "OK, so give me some names" Laughing, I said, "No names, I don't snitch. You know who it is all right." I could not stop once I got started, waving my arms around and shouting. I left work the next day as it was Friday.

Gritty, sticky blue asbestos.

Three months later, I went back for my job, I sat in this empty room waiting for Bill, feeling a fool as the other job I got was only for the Christmas rush, and he knew. When he saw me, he said, "You have a bloody nerve coming here. What do you want?"

I said, "My old job back. I'm one of your best workers and you know it. I need a job and you need me." I won't repeat what he said. I waited for nearly 20 minutes then he came back and said, "OK."

When I started back I was pleased to find all the runners got moved around week to week. That meant all the good work got shared out now. It had helped to stop all that bribery, so he'd listened to me.

Next Bill said he had got some special stuff for me to spin. They had just got a load in from Rhodesia. Blue asbestos, not white, more sticky, much stronger and tougher. I worked on this a couple of years then left again to have my babies.

Further down the track I went back to work with the blue asbestos on the so-called leisure shift, 5 till 9pm.

We hit a bad spell in our lives so we decided to emigrate to Australia as we couldn't manage any more as things were.

The rest is history. Never dreamt I would be bringing the blue asbestos with me inside my body to give me pain and horror 30 odd years down the track.

Why were we not told about this? Why! Damn you Turner Brothers and NPLC as you are now called.

Now I know that I have blue asbestos mesothelioma and have read up all I can on it. The future seems so hopeless sometimes. It scares me so much - the pain I have already is nothing to what I can expect.

I have just been for 12 treatments of radiotherapy and it's a scary feeling. The side effects and the misery and suffering one gets just from this is not what I expected. But I shall not give up without a fight, even if it takes all the strength I have. I just wish I could take the horror out of my mind as I cannot stop thinking about it and neither can my husband and family.

You also lose some of your friends as they don't know how to act around you and you feel so full of pain and anguish. Not a nice way to live, is it?

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