Heather Crowe blijft leven

Ze was de eerste vrouw van wie ‘officieel’ vastgesteld werd dat ze longkanker had gekregen door meeroken. Een leven achter een bar had haar blootgesteld aan zóveel rook dat de enige oorzaak van haar longkanker wel die rook móest zijn. De aanwezigheid van asbest of andere kankerverwekkende stoffen achter de bar werd niet echt ooit onderzocht.

Heather Crowe werd dan ook op handen gedragen door de anti’s in Canada. Ze reisde stad en land af om duidelijk te maken dat ze binnen enkele maanden dood zou gaan door dat meeroken. Voor haar lezingen kreeg ze goed uitbetaald door de overheidsorganisatie (WCB) die haar als wapen gebruikte om rookverboden ingevoerd te krijgen.

En nu blijkt ze plotseling tóch niet dood te gaan en de anti’s laten haar vallen als een baksteen. Ze moet maar weer werk gaan zoeken. Politiek gezien is ze niet meer bruikbaar..

They tell you you’re going to die, any day, any month. So you quit your job, sell your house and buy a golden urn. With your dying breaths, you race across the country, begging lawmakers to ban smoking in the workplace. You become famous, the waitress dying from second-hand smoke. Your face appears in television ads and on bulletin boards. Dismay and black humour creep into your speeches. “I was like a little red hen in a barn scratching out a living, then I found out the barn was a toxic dump,” you say. You tell legislatures and councils to ban smoking and they do, because you are dying.

And then something peculiar happens. You don’t die.

News flash: Heather Crowe is not dead. Two years after she was told she had months to live, the former waitress is sitting in an Ottawa Burger King wondering why. She is healthy and rosy-cheeked and chubby, embarrassed to be 40 pounds heavier than she was when she waitressed.

So many of the patients she met during chemotherapy and radiation have died. But not her. She has just learned she has a 30-per-cent chance of living five more years.

“Yes, I’m happy,” Crowe says cautiously. “Of course, I’m happy.” But she’s also confused, lonely, bored and anxious. She did not plan on limbo.

Prognoses are always guesswork. In this case, Crowe’s lungs are so scarred from radiation it’s difficult for doctors to see her tumour clearly. For now, there are no signs of it.

“Now what?” she asks. Does she continue to live like she’s dying or does she get on with the business of life? It’s a question that’s also being asked by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. After being diagnosed in 2002, she asked for compensation, arguing she was a nonsmoker who had spent 40 years working in smoke-filled restaurants.

Last year, the board ruled she did get lung cancer from workplace smoke. Based on her $12,000 salary, it awarded her $200 a week plus a $4,000 a year to help with medical expenses. She received a $40,000, one-time payment for pain and suffering. Then, just before Christmas, worker’s compensation told her to go back to work.

Of course, this is ironic. Even in the bleakest days of chemo and radiation, Crowe forced herself out of bed and onto airplanes. She made several trips to Manitoba, for example, where the legislature has just held the first reading of a Non-Smokers Health Protection Act that would ban smoking in all indoor public and work places on Oct. 1. These laws will save Worker’s Compensation millions of dollars over the long term. Crowe says by sending her back to work, they no longer have to pay her weekly benefits.

She expects she’ll be retrained to use a computer in an office, but wonders if it’s the best use of whatever time she has left. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to work. After her diagnosis, she offered her services to Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada and the Ottawa Health Department. She still speaks at high schools and travels often to meetings to encourage smoking bans. Yes, she needs to keep busy, to fill her days with something other than television and worry.

She’s just not optimistic she’ll find work. “I’m 59. I’ve been out of school for 40 years. I’m a terminal cancer patient. I can’t stand up very long. I move very slow. My lungs are badly scarred from radiation. I’m always breathless. Send me the list of people who would hire me. Send me a list.”

Worker’s Compensation has provided physical therapy to help her re-enter the workforce. Maybe Worker’s Compensation should hire her as an ambassador? The thought makes her laugh. “To tell you the truth, I crave a workplace.”

She speaks poetically. Eighteen months ago, she was quiet, ill-spoken and unsure. All her life she worked like a dog, holding more than one waitress job as sole-supporter of a daughter, now grown. Now Crowe speaks with the confidence of someone who knows she has something to say. She stands up for herself. She is radiant. And here’s the cliche: Cancer gave her a chance to reinvent her life. It freed her from juggling plates and allowed her to see who she might have been much earlier if life had been different.

Cynthia Callard, of Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada, works closely with Crowe. “She is in a no-man’s land,” she says. “She never expected this. Her chances of survival were not good. She sold her home, put her affairs in order. It’s a real roller-coaster.”

And Callard said Crowe’s changing health status has been a challenge to those in the anti-smoking movement. “Heather arrived in our lives as a fatally injured worker. That was her trump card, so to speak. I’d hate for her to think that her only value to us was that she was about to die.”

Crowe is trying to adapt. “I guess I am the messenger.”

In the months ahead, she’ll continue to speak out. This summer, she may go to Ireland, where smoking was recently banned. Perhaps, if she remains healthy, she may even re-enter the workforce.

The doctor has told her not to lose any weight and has scheduled a bone scan to make sure the new aches and pains are from osteoporosis or honest-to-goodness old age.

“Anything can change at any time, but for now, I’ve got to think about the future,” she says. “Imagine that.”

Ottawa Citizen

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