‘Pulled muscle’ was death sentence for GP
WHEN a healthy, successful GP felt a pain in her shoulder one day, she wasn't too worried, assuming it was a pulled muscle.
To her shock, the 63-year-old discovered she had developed an aggressive cancer in her ribcage from asbestos exposure at a hospital in the NSW Hunter Region. She would be dead within months.
Pauline Vizzard's family, friends and patients were devastated to learn the energetic doctor was riddled with disease in the lining of her organs. They had never thought for a second that she was at risk from this quiet killer in her line of work.
"It was a surprise on everyone's behalf," son Ben Harrison, 34, told news.com.au. "You sort of associate asbestos cancers with people who may work in industry for all their life, and to have someone who is so removed from what you'd normally expect to be a high-risk industry ... there's no cure for mesothelioma at all, it's fatal 100 per cent of the time.
"You hear about survival rates for cancer improving year after year, but with mesothelioma, it's a death sentence straight off the bat. There's no hope for a cure, no hope of getting better and that's quite a terrible diagnosis. The treatment was purely to prolong life, to get a few more months."
Dr Vizzard had contracted the cancer at a public hospital where she regularly conducted ward rounds in the '70s and '80s. Dust and particles from deteriorated lagging around hot water and steam pipes accumulated on top of ceiling tiles and slid into the hallway when the tile was tipped up during frequent maintenance.
Inhaling an asbestos fibre can cause thickening of the pleura (membrane around the lung), the appearance of plaque in lung tissue and excess fluids in the pleural space. This can lead to laryngeal, colon, ovarian and lung cancers.
While many believe asbestos-related illness is dying out, it is in fact a growing risk to Australian employees thanks to ageing workplace infrastructure. The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency's 2016-17 report recorded an increase in occupational exposure to 70 per cent from 64 per cent the previous year.
Despite a 2003 nationwide ban on the production, importation and use of asbestos, Australia continues to grapple with the legacy of being one of the world's highest users per capita of asbestos materials from the mid-40s to late '80s.
To add to the tragedy, at the time of her diagnosis, Dr Vizzard was sole carer for husband John, who had late-stage Parkinson's and dementia. "Mum was always quite upbeat about things. She did her best," said Mr Harrison, from the NSW Central Coast. "She was still trying to be everyone's mum.
"She had to undergo chemo and other forms of radiation therapy to try to prolong her life and give her a few more months and that had a huge negative effect, and then in the last month or two, she went into a rapid decline."
Dr Vizzard died in April 2015, and her husband followed not long after. One patient wrote on a tribute page: "I'm finding it extremely hard to believe this every morning when I wake. Pauline was my doctor close to 30 years. I will miss her dreadfully."
Another said: "Not only a great doctor and an integral part of the Singleton community but an aunty who I have always loved and admired. Sadly missed but so fortunate to have known her."
Mr Harrison says he's not angry with anyone over what happened to his mother, but wants people to be aware asbestos exposure can still be a risk in what we may consider unlikely settings. "It's one of those unfortunate things that this material that we now know is so deadly managed to find its way to the most innocent of places, even hospitals," he said.
Asbestos has this year been discovered in classic cars, on a Melbourne kindergarten site where children were playing and in homes damaged by storms. Experts have warned the rise of DIY home renovations fuelled by reality TV could lead to a "third wave" of asbestos-related diseases in Australia.
Around 600 people die of asbestos-related illness around the country each year.
David Jones, Hunter Region executive partner from Carroll & O'Dea Lawyers, which managed Dr Vizzard's case, said: "As the case demonstrates, mesothelioma has a long latency period after exposure, meaning that workers exposed to asbestos a generation ago might still contract the disease.
"Asbestos in situ can still be found in many older public buildings and homes, and as the fabric of these infrastructures containing asbestos products deteriorates, the dangers of exposure to asbestos fibres is on the increase. Many are part of the ageing public infrastructure."
• Show caution when removing asbestos in the home. If in doubt, have a licensed removalist assess, safely remove and properly dispose of it for you.
• Some toys and crayons from overseas, particularly from China, have been found to contain asbestos. Avoid crushing, scraping or melting them, as this can release asbestos fibres.
• Be careful when buying online - buying a cheap toy on eBay from China may not be worth the risk.
• Buy from reputable brands and businesses that demand high safety standards from suppliers.
• If you have any concerns about your workplace, talk to your employer.
• To find your nearest accredited testing lab, call 1800 621 666. If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos, register your details on the National Asbestos Exposure Register.