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At North Kansas City Hospital, doctors took several samples of Coleman's blood and sent them to labs in Denver and Philadelphia. The samples came back positive for sensitivity to beryllium. She says, "At that point, I had no idea what beryllium was."
Coleman was given a list of occupational-illness specialists recommended by the Department of Labor, which will pay for her treatments for life. None of the specialists are in the Kansas City area. The doctor who came with the most recommendations, Coleman found, was Lee Newman, at Denver's National Jewish Health.
When she visited the hospital at National Jewish for the first time, Coleman says, she encountered a lobby packed with former Department of Energy workers. Many were strapped to oxygen tanks.
"I don't want to be on oxygen," she says. "Of course, I will, if that's the only way I can ... . " She trails off.
Newman explained that Coleman's allergic reaction to beryllium could turn into chronic beryllium disease at any time. Chronic beryllium disease, or berylliosis, interferes with the lungs' ability to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream. It's treatable, but there is no cure.
"He [Newman] couldn't believe the levels [of exposure] that I had, for the very short time I'd been at Honeywell," she says.
The son she was pregnant with in the summer of '68, while working at Honeywell, died in 1996 of lymphoma. He was 27. Coleman says she asked doctors at National Jewish whether her beryllium exposure could have contributed to her son's illness. She says they told her no.
Coleman visited Denver four times from 2001 to 2007 for monitoring and for a sequence of tests that included a painful bronchoscopy, which takes tissue samples from the lungs. The tests were so unpleasant, Coleman opted not to go to Denver in 2008.
Early this year, Coleman says, she could tell something was wrong. "It's hard to walk and talk and breathe at the same time," she says.
She went back to National Jewish for testing this past summer and was diagnosed with berylliosis. The diagnosis triggered paperwork on the $150,000 settlement from the Department of Labor, for which Coleman now qualifies. But she's reluctant to fill it out. If she accepts it, she can't join any future class-action lawsuits against the DOE or Honeywell.
Accepting the money also means admitting that she's sick.
"I was angry at first and scared," Coleman says. "I still don't know what to think. I don't know how long it takes to progress. Everyone tells me there's no cure and it's fatal. What do I need to be doing? Should I quit my job? Should I be doing something else, something fun?"
She tries to stay positive, to keep laughing. "I plan on living a long time," she says. "That's why I don't think $150,000 is enough, for the suffering, you know what I'm saying? Because when you're sick, you're sick. There's nothing like not being able to catch your breath."
Maurice Copeland was hired at the plant in 1968, became one of its first black supervisors in 1988 and retired in 2000. Now, he's one of Honeywell's loudest critics.
As a supervisor, he says, he never received any safety training to impart to his workers regarding the handling of dangerous chemicals on the factory floor.
"The government wrote the book on safety processes in 1943," he says. "They can say, 'This is what should be done.' They might even say, 'This is what we did.' Well, I say they're lying. No one ever trained me on the protections on how to handle these materials."