Helen McMillan Zak

She keeps occupied with daily distractions

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Helen McMillan Zak had eight brothers and sisters. Of the eight, seven, including Helen, contracted asbestosis. Only four siblings survive.

None reached their 60th birthday. Today Helen is 55.

“I’m mad, I’m angry. I’d like to see them go to jail,” Helen says of W.R. Grace. “How many people have they killed because of their greed?”

In the sun-drenched room off the kitchen where she keeps her computer desk, Helen tells the story of her family and their unfortunate relationship with asbestosis. Framed pictures of smiling siblings, children and grandchildren compete for space on almost every flat surface. She jerks at the green oxygen hose she’s attached to 24 hours a day, yanking it out from under the corner of her kitchen shelves where it frequently becomes stuck.

Helen and her siblings grew up in a small house off East Fifth Street in Libby, across the street from a good swim in the Kootenai River, but near train tracks where freight trains sped by carrying the dusty vermiculite ore.

“Usually, when we were coming home from school we had to wait for the train to go by,” she recalls. “So when we would stand there we could see [the asbestos] flying off. Just like a fairy dust type thing.”

The dust was never far away. It drifted through the attic where she and her sister Judy used to play hide and seek amidst the loose vermiculite insulation. Judy loved to jump in piles of the stuff down by the ballparks, next to the Grace expanding plants, where furnaces heated the dusty ore to its fluffy state.

Helen left Libby after graduating high school, periodically returning over the years. She and her husband now live in Stevensville, in a modest house perched atop a small hill, overlooking the Bitterroot Valley. Geese waddle about the yard.

The Zaks are rich in surrounding beauty, but money is tight. Helen carefully maps out purchases in a list she keeps handy. Her husband is retired, and so is she now that she no longer has the energy to work. She has a degree in education and had plans to teach high school or adult education before she found out she had asbestosis.

“I figured I had another 15 to 20 years to work. And then whammo,” Zak says. “My income is diddly compared to what it was.”

Together the Zaks pull in about $1,400 a month from Social Security. It pays the bills, but not much more.

“I would like for [W.R. Grace] to have a little compassion and understanding,” Helen says. “I would like to have enough money to where I can take my granddaughter to the movie or something without having to take away from the food. It’s constant hassle there.”

Helen, like many other asbestosis-sufferers, is constantly attached to her life-giving oxygen tank. She looks fondly at younger photos of her laughing with friends in a bar, of her as a happy graduate, and of family reunions in lush green parks. Now she works on her computer creating recipe books for family and friends. She crochets and enjoys visits from her granddaughter every weekend.

Even that would be difficult without the help of a hired woman who changes bedding, washes dishes, does laundry, vacuums, runs errands and helps out with shopping.

Helen occasionally shops on her own, but it’s an ordeal carting around the oxygen tanks, which help but can’t fend off her exhaustion entirely.

“I don’t go anywhere and I used to hardly ever be home,” she says. “And now it’s like I don’t go anywhere because I don’t feel good.”

When Helen does feel well enough to make the trip to Missoula’s Wal-Mart Supercenter, she ends up searching for items on her list whose location has changed because she shops so infrequently. She maps her route through the store to save steps and the limited oxygen in her tank.

Even so, by the time she unloads her items into a checkout lane, she is breathing heavily, the needle on her oxygen gauge hovering on the brink of empty.

Despite these difficulties, she copes the best she can.

“You just learn to deal with it,” she says. “You can either crawl in a hole or just go on with your life and take it as it comes.”

Suicide may be a way to deal with the disease, she says.

“[But] that’s not an option in my life.”


Helen Zak, 59, passed away peacefully Sunday, December 2, 2012, at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont., surrounded by her family. May you rest in peace, Helen.

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