Teacher in Philadelphia with Mesothelioma Catches City’s Attention

By - on May 18, 2020

Last Updated: May 18th, 2020

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Mesothelioma diagnoses normally do not get headlines in local newspapers, especially in large cities such as Philadelphia. But that is what happened recently in The City of Brotherly Love as the Philadelphia Inquirer has been following the mesothelioma case of Lea DiRusso.

DiRusso is a 51-year-old who worked for almost 30 years as a teacher in a Philadelphia school district before receiving her asbestos cancer diagnosis. Her condition is being blamed on asbestos contamination in two South Philadelphia schools where she spent her entire career. (Mesothelioma.net)

The school district recently agreed to an $850,000 settlement with the teacher. (WHYY.org). The amount is over the $500,000 cap on personal injury cases involving government agencies in the state.

$500,000 Will Fall Short of What DiRusso Needs

DiRusso said she appreciates the district going over the cap, but she also said it will fall short of what she needs to pay for her medical treatments and care. In a recent interview with the newspaper, she said the $500,000 will barely cover her medical needs for the remainder of her life, which is probably only going to be a few years.

After DiRusso’s diagnosis and the discovery of asbestos contamination in many school buildings in Philadelphia, the city has been moving aggressively to eliminate as much asbestos as possible from its schools. But the process is more difficult than many believed.

In many cases, the process for finding asbestos with special equipment has led to higher levels of the dangerous mineral in school hallways.

High Levels of Asbestos May Not Have Been There for Many Years

The district’s interim chief of facilities and capital projects said this month that the challenge is that the higher levels of asbestos contamination may not have been there for the past two decades. Some of it may have happened because of the work that is going on inside the building. That is why workers went through the school buildings to find locations that may have been disturbed during the testing process.

Inquirer Details How DiRusso’s Asbestos Contamination May Have Occurred

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in 2019 about DiRusso and how her daily work may have led to severe asbestos contamination. She worked in a 90-year-old Meredith Elementary, and every week, she climbed on a chair and hung students’ best work on a clothesline between two heating pipes.

As she pulled the line down to clip on an essay or artwork, it rubbed against insulation and often sent down fine white flakes. She was probably inhaling or swallowing billions of asbestos fibers and did not know it.

DiRusso said that when she came into her classroom on a Monday morning, she said there would be dust on her desk and ground from falling ceiling tiles that probably contained asbestos. So she would grab a broom and sweep it up, but this probably made her inhale even more of the deadly material. Also, school district records showed that her classroom had a long history of damaged asbestos-coated heating pipes.

Mesothelioma Diagnosed in August 2019

In late August 2019, as she was helping her daughter get moved into her freshman college dorm, DiRusso got a phone call from her doctor. He told her she had mesothelioma. She was so shocked she lost hearing and vision for a minute.

DiRusso had three rounds of chemotherapy in September of that year. She then had to decide if she wanted to have risky surgery to remove cancerous tissue and have her abdominal cavity flushed with hot chemotherapy fluids. (Inquirer.com)

Two Schools DiRusso Worked in Filled With Asbestos-Containing Materials

Both Meredith and Nebinger Elementary are filled with building materials made from asbestos. School district documents showed that inspectors noted that some of the asbestos was crumbling, which makes it extremely dangerous. But the school district often did nothing for months and years, even though many of the rooms were being used by students and staff.

As DiRusso had high asbestos exposure from materials that were in poor repair for years in two schools, it is likely that exposure was a significant contributing factor to her mesothelioma, noted Henry Anderson, former chief medical officer, and epidemiologist for the Wisconsin Division of Public Health.

Anderson specializes in environmental and occupational medicine and has done two studies on mesothelioma cases by type of job in Wisconsin. His studies found that teachers, especially elementary and middle school, are at a higher risk of mesothelioma than the general population.

First Noted Something Wrong in Spring 2019

DiRusso was remarried in 2017 and her new husband encouraged her to eat healthier to lose weight. She was happy to lose weight, but as she did, her stomach started to swell. This is a potential sign of peritoneal mesothelioma.

She actually had a pregnancy test because her stomach was bloated and hard. A gastroenterologist ruled out cancer after ordering a colonoscopy and endoscopy. He thought her bloated stomach was from menopause and gastritis.

But a month later, she bought a pair of pants that no longer fit by Sunday. Her husband took her to the ER. She was admitted to a hospital in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Doctors drained four liters of fluid from her abdomen. They also did an endoscopy of her abdomen with a camera and performed a biopsy.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Has Spread

After being diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, she found out the mesothelioma cancer had spread to her uterus, small bowel, and ovaries. She underwent her HIPEC surgery in December 2019 to remove as many of the tumors as possible and undergo chemotherapy treatment.

DiRusso is young, so there is a good chance that she can recover from surgery well and live longer than many mesothelioma patients. Only time will tell.