in an Instant
Photo by: Shannon DeCelle
Catastrophic illness, and wondering about its cause, has
brought big changes to the lives of many National Lead neighbors
By Geraldean Hourigan
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
dealt with the death part,” he says. “But I want to walk my
girls down the aisle. I want them to remember me.”