Regardless of the outcome now, Sheri and Leon D. always will be grateful for the way they were treated, for the assistance they received, for the doctor who cared so much.
It gave them hope.
A diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma back in October was a devastating blow initially, but the help came quickly once they found The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com.
“We never could have gotten through this alone — never,” said Sheri, wife and primary caregiver for Leon, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran who was hit with the diagnosis. “We’re going home now feeling good, smiling again. Like our prayers were just answered.” Their last name is being withheld over privacy concerns.
After spending three-and-a-half months in Boston under the care of the VA Healthcare System and mesothelioma specialist Avi Lebenthal, M.D., the couple returned home to Panama City, Fla., on April 11, confident that their life together will last many more years.
“We were told at home that he had maybe 15 more months to live, that he could get chemotherapy and just hope for the best,” Sheri said. “Nobody knew what to do. We had no other options until we found the Mesothelioma Center.
“Then we got to Boston, we heard five to 15 more years. The difference was staggering. Dr. Lebenthal told Leon, ‘Put yourself in my hands, and you’ll be okay.’ He took a lot of our worries away. I feel like he gave us a new life.”
Lebenthal, a thoracic surgeon, has a special respect and admiration for military veterans. He served earlier in the Israeli Armed Forces, receiving a Letter of Distinction for Bravery from his time on the battlefield.
He splits his time now between the Boston VA Healthcare System and the International Mesothelioma Program at the nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
He often talks to his mesothelioma patients about earning their trust, about going to war together to battle this disease, and about never leaving a brother behind.
“We were so impressed with him, about his confidence in what he’s doing,” Sheri said. “We feel fortunate that we found him. And that we were able to get to Boston, and stay here for as long as it took.”
The couple were guided through the process by Kaylen Jackson, the medical outreach director at the Mesothelioma Center. Jackson arranged a much-needed travel grant, and she arranged their first meeting with Lebenthal, who has encouraged any U.S. veterans with mesothelioma to contact him.
They talked with the Veterans Assistance Department at the Mesothelioma Center. He helped them navigate quickly through the often-complex VA Healthcare System.
They traveled to Boston for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, met with Lebenthal and his staff on Friday and began a week’s worth of tests to determine the best course of action. After flying home, they returned for a seven-hour surgical procedure by Lebenthal on Dec. 22.
Although their stay in Boston was considerably longer than anticipated — there were post-surgery complications — housing was not a problem for either Sheri or Leon. In fact, it was free.
While he was hospitalized, she stayed at the nearby Fisher House, a public-private partnership that provides housing for family member of veterans receiving treatment.
“It was really nice, like living in a mansion, tile floors, granite counters in the kitchen, and the people there were wonderful,” she said. “Otherwise, I never could have stayed. Our life savings would not have covered all this.”
When Leon was out of the hospital but needed to be close for daily monitoring, the couple stayed at the Huntington House, another no-fee residential facility designed for veterans and caregivers.
Leon believes his mesothelioma stemmed from his exposure to asbestos in the Coast Guard (1965-69), where he worked in the engine room on the U.S. Port Knoll. It was a time when U.S. military ships, particularly below deck, were loaded with asbestos.
It often takes between 10 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos before symptoms of mesothelioma appear. And by then, it has spread through the lining surrounding the lungs.
“We were stunned. Leon had never been sick. He always has been healthy. But he started coughing, and the coughing got worse,” Sheri said. “We were afraid it was lung cancer.”
Until Leon’s diagnosis they had never heard of mesothelioma or understood what it was.
“We never would have been able to go to Boston or stay this long and get the kind of care he got on our own,” Sheri said. “For that, we’ll always be grateful.”
The hope, of course, is that the couple will have many more years to be grateful together.