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Photo by: Shannon DeCelle
Changed in an Instant
Catastrophic illness, and wondering about its cause, has brought big changes to the lives of many National Lead neighbors

By Geraldean Hourigan

His friends know him as Ronny “the Rooster” Russo, but some of the guys from the rock bands and biker clubs don’t come around anymore—they tell him they can’t bear to see the way the illnesses have changed him.

In 2002, Russo was diagnosed with hemachromotosis, a rare blood disorder that affects the liver. Doctors could not figure out why his blood-sugar level was so high, even for a diabetic, and they probed further. Scans of Russo’s lungs showed several small nodules, too small to be picked up by a regular chest X-ray. Panicked, his doctors asked him whether he had been around bird feces, or worked in a pet shop, or a factory, or worked with toxic substances. “No, no, never,” he told them.

Almost overnight, Russo went from a 260-pound cab driver and dispatcher to a gaunt cancer patient with 18 months to live.

Russo, 49, is one of a number of people who lived near the former National Lead (NL) Industries plant on Central Avenue in Colonie during the years it manufactured depleted uranium, and who are now suffering from a host of chronic and sometimes fatal diseases that can’t be explained by family history. While technical arguments rage over the details of the depleted uranium production, the extent of pollution, and how much of the illnesses can actually be pinned on NL [“One Half-Life to Live,” Feb. 5], the people who are sick are living through things that the jargon of picocuries per cubic foot doesn’t begin to descibe.

For Russo and his family, the costs could not have been greater. The medical bills alone have destroyed the life he once had.

“Do you know what the loss from this has been for my family?” he says. “We lost our dog, our car and our house.” He and his wife, Dee, have been married for 16 years. “The first five years we worked to get the house, the last 10 years we worked to keep the house, and in eight months time we lost it all.”

Russo, his wife and their three children narrowly escaped becoming homeless and now live in an apartment. “Everything you see in this house has been given to us,” Russo says.

But the loss of all his family’s material possessions has not been the worst of it, Russo says. “Not being able to work is driving me crazy. But you know what bothers me more than anything? Not being able to sing. I have been a singer since 1974.”

Russo attended College of Saint Rose as a voice major, and the “Rooster” has played with a lot of musicians over the years in venues across the region, including the Knick/Pepsi Arena, the Starlight, Northern Lights and Port Jervis Civic Center.

Russo will never get his house or health back, but he hasn’t given up yet on his passion. “I am dying to sing again,” he says. “I can still sing but I can’t hold notes. I start coughing.”

“I am bound and determined to sing again before I leave this earth,” Ron said in an interview in late January. “If there were a Make-A-Wish foundation for adults, you know what my wish would be? Get all the fans and people I have played with over the last 30 years and have one big day of rock & roll. I would take the money and give it to the families that have been affected by NL, trying to pay their sky-rocketing medical bills. They could use the support. That’s what I want.”

Though his daily routine normally consists of going from home to the hospital to the doctor’s office to the hospital to home, the other day some of the guys got him to a band rehearsal. “I got through six songs before I lost my breath and the coughing started,” he says.

But his dream is happening: Bands from across the region have pulled together to make Russo’s wish come true, and he will sing again on Sunday (Feb. 29), at Cheers on Fuller Road in Colonie. The benefit concert is free, and everyone is invited to come and support Russo and his cause.

Russo suspects that roots of his current struggles started nearly a half-century ago, when his parents purchased 17 Highland Ave., a home just a stone’s throw from Central Avenue, where they lived for 22 years and raised their only child. Right in the middle of the neighborhood stood the NL factory. It quickly became a playground for Russo and his friends. “It was a great place to grow up, but no one knew. As kids we had no clue what they were doing there,” he says.

“We used to take the half-dried paint laying around in puddles all over the plant property and form the paint into balls and play war with them. We used to dig tunnels in the dirt then take their empty 55-gallon drums to support the tunnel walls and crawl through them,” Russo says. “I even had my first sexual encounter behind that plant.”

Both of Russo’s parents died within the last five years. His mother died of congestive heart disease, lung disease, and kidney failure, his father from hemochromotosis of the liver.

When he was first diagnosed, Russo assumed that his afflictions were genetic. He didn’t make the connection between his illnesses, the death of his parents, and NL until Assemblyman Robert Prentiss (R-Colonie) approached him and asked him how his parents had died. Prentiss had no idea that Russo himself had been diagnosed with a terminal illness that may have been caused by exposure to toxins and contaminants emitted by the NL plant.

It was during their conversation that Russo learned that his parents’ deaths might be related to his own failing health through something other than DNA. Once Russo told Prentiss about his diagnosis, he recalls, Prentiss said, “Ron, you are definitely involved.”

Barbara Metcalf, 40, sat stunned as she listened to Russo tell the story of his family’s illnesses during a recent meeting of community activists. The group had gathered to listen to representatives from a law firm that had filed a class-action lawsuit against NL in Ohio.

In 1999, Metcalf’s doctors diagnosed her with a rare disease, inflammatory breast cancer. As a result of all her doctor visits and examinations, several small lesions—similar to Russo’s—were detected on her lungs.

For 29 years, Metcalf lived at 28 Marriner Ave., about a mile from the NL plant. Her home was not part of the group of properties designated for remediation by the government.

Today, Metcalf has a 30 percent chance of surviving the cancer. “I am just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she says. “Meanwhile, I want answers. Why do I have lesions on my lungs?”

The Metcalfs own a catering business. When Barbara was diagnosed five years ago, they struggled to keep their business going. Barbara spent 250 days in New York City getting treatment, with a 2-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter at home.

“People don’t get that this was such a life-changing thing,”she says. “We technically lost our business. We are still catering currently, but we lost tons and tons of money. It was a disaster.”

“I have probably $10,000 out in health bills right now,” she says. “They are never going to see their money.”

Currently there is a New York City-based environmental law firm talking with community members and compiling a list of illnesses by asking community members to file a NL Health Survey. (The surveys may be obtained and filed by calling 518-732-4538.)

But even the process of finding answers has brought new struggles to people already exhausted by devastating illnesses. Community members left the last meeting with the law firm feeling discouraged after they were told they each would have to come up with $1,000 of their own “pocket money” for a urinalysis to would provide support for developing a class action lawsuit.

“They say that you are always two paychecks away from being homeless, but when you are sick, there is no time,” Russo says. “You don’t realize that when something goes wrong with your health, the American Dream becomes the American Nightmare.”

But even after everything the Russos have been though in the past year, they have kept their sense of humor. “I lost 100 pounds. I like to call it the cancer-chemo diet. It really works,” jokes Russo.

Russo’s three kids, ages 6, 9, and 14, understand as much as any child could about their father’s pain and suffering. They know that someday soon, dad won’t be around to keep them in line anymore. The family has already picked out the place on the mantle where his remains will sit in an urn.

“If the kids start acting up, then the urn is going to start shaking,” laughs Russo’s wife, Dee.

All joking aside, Russo lives knowing what he is going to leave behind. Doctors say Russo’s lungs and kidneys are going to shut down before long. The neuropathy has numbed his feet, hands, toes, and legs.

“I dealt with the death part,” he says. “But I want to walk my girls down the aisle. I want them to remember me.”

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