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Mesothelioma Warrior Walter Twidwell was diagnosed with the asbestos-caused cancer after a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy. The deadly substance was in the materials Walter used for his job as a boilerman.
“I did not want to be a logger,” Walter said. Instead, he left the dense rain forest and timber industry of Washington to join the Navy. “And I stayed there,” serving on seven ships during a career that began in 1954 during the Korean Conflict.
“I was so proud to wear that uniform and I put my heart into it,” he said of his service. “There was never a boring moment,” Walter recounted career highlights including retrieving astronaut John Glenn after a space mission and earning a commendation from the Secretary of the Navy.
Walter retired from the Navy in 1973 and returned home to Washington, where he got to work building a homestead with hand tools and reclaimed lumber. “I knew someday I had to come back to this peace and quiet,” he said.
And he did.
His food came from his own rifle, or out of his garden. Heat was from trees he felled and split himself. His fierce independence and self-sufficient way of life earned him a reputation for fierce independence. But Walter had a big heart, and his charitable work as a member of local Shriners and Masons chapters to help school children and the elderly garnered recognition from the local community. When the local newspaper wrote a feature about “The Curmudgeon in the Woods,” the profile filled Walter with pride.
The harmony was interrupted by the sour note of a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis. Frequent bouts of pneumonia had led Walter to ask his doctor for answers. The diagnosis started with a chest X-ray, followed quickly by a biopsy. It confirmed that asbestos exposure during his time in the Navy had resulted in the cancer in Walter’s lungs.
The diagnosis didn’t diminish his fight; instead, Walter strengthened his resolve.
“When I got told they knew many years prior what asbestos would do to the human being,” Walter said, “I got mad and said, ‘Heck with this noise, they’re gonna hear from me.’”
And they did, to the tune of a $40.1 million settlement.
Walter started working young. “My dad died when I was fourteen years old,” he said. He went to work milking cows before school. At seventeen, schooling complete, Walter followed his uncle to sea. “I was impressed,” he said, “that Navy uniform, you know.”
As a boiler tender, Walter constantly handled materials that contained asbestos. Shipboard steam plants rely on the high-heat capacity and durability of asbestos, and its presence was no secret.
“I always knew that there was asbestos,” Walter said, “I asked them what the material was made out of you know and they told me asbestos.” But nobody ever told him that asbestos causes cancer. That information had been omitted by the companies who put asbestos in their products.
Walter shook his head; “Nobody ever said anything about it being dangerous.”
Walter threw himself into his work. In 1970, off the Vietnam coast, a marathon or repairs is how Walter earned the Commendation from the Navy. The leaks were bad, he explained, “the engine room had a leak they were living with, and they were losing a lot of water out of that. And I had a few leaks in my boiler room.” Leaks only get worse over time, and they’d been out a while. “Nine months overseas. And we went dead in the water, purposely.” Walter got to work. “I spent three days and three nights down there, working on valves and gaskets. Got that leak stopped.”
Even in less extreme times, “there was never, never a boring moment. I always had gaskets to work on. Always had valves to work on,” Walter said. But there was a dark side to his dedication to his job, and the asbestos came back to haunt him.
Mesothelioma is a sneaky disease. Its symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions, and the disease is rare enough that most people haven’t heard of it. “The word ‘mesothelioma’ I didn’t know anything about,” Walter explained.
“When I turned 70, I started getting pneumonia, not flu, but pneumonia once in a while. But then as time went on, they kept getting closer, and closer, and closer together,” Walter said about his first inkling that something was amiss. “I said, ‘I wanna know why.’ And they sent me downstairs to get a chest X-ray.” Imaging revealed that Walter probably had pleural mesothelioma, which occurs in the lungs, and a biopsy confirmed it.
Normally stoic, Walter broke. “I got a knot in my stomach you know,” he recalled about hearing the diagnosis. Advice from his doctor was blunt. “He told me then that there was no cure for it. He said, ‘You have all your paperwork in order?’ I said, ‘Yes I do.’ He said, ‘Well, keep it there.'”
Walter’s way of life changed forever after the diagnosis. Emotionally, it lingered. “I’m a little angry about it, yes I am” he said. “It set me back for a couple days, but I’m old enough to where I’ve accepted it.”
But as the disease progressed, it would rob Walter of his independence. “I can’t cut wood [or] raise a big garden or anything anymore,” he lamented. “It hurts cause knowing that I [had] been so independent all my life, and all of a sudden I can’t do anything for myself.”
A friend suggested calling a lawyer, but Walter was reluctant. “I didn’t want to sue my government and I damn sure didn’t want to sue the Navy, ’cause they’re still feeding me,” he explained. Walter’s friend acted on his behalf and contacted Simmons Hanly Conroy.
Walter chuckled, “He says, ‘I called ’em and told ’em where you was livin’, told ’em all about ya.’ Here they was, here they came. So, he’s the one that did it.”
Shareholder Rob Woodward and the Simmons team put Walter at ease. “It was only two or three days and he was here” Walter marveled. “He didn’t do it by phone. He came and seen me and talked to me personally. He knew what kind of a man I was and how involved I was with my job in the Navy.”
Walter appreciated the way Rob and the firm handled his mesothelioma lawsuit. “It was a hands-on approach and that’s what drew me cause that’s the way I do things, a hands-on approach,” Walter said.
As compassionately as Rob and Simmons Hanly Conroy treated Walter, the firm was equally as aggressive seeking justice and compensation. “I was watching the way they handled it,” Walter recounted the experience of going to trial and how impressed he was at the way the Simmons trial team prepared his case.
“They could go back to day one and had the paperwork to back them up,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking to myself ‘Oh, wow! These boys know what they’re doin’.”
Simmons Hanly Conroy is proud to help those with mesothelioma, asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases navigate the legal system. Our law firm has recovered more than $8 Billion for asbestos clients since 1999.
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