The Untimely Passing of Dorothy Blosser

Hope

The Untimely Passing of Dorothy Blosser

by dusty donaldson

Dorothy’s husband Glendon served as pastor of Zion Hill Mennonite Church in Singers Glen for 10 years, and then served as a bishop overseeing 13 churches. His bishop responsibilities required him to travel frequently. Dorothy assumed responsibility for running the dairy farm when he traveled. Whatever needed to be done, she did it. Glendon recalled a humorous story about one time when he came home from a trip with unexpected visitors.

“I came home and she was lying underneath the manure spreader fixing the chain,” he recalled with a laugh. “Dorothy hung in there with the kids. She was so happy. Oh, she loved it with her children there on the farm.”

In the fall of 1981, after 30 years of marriage and raising their four children, Glendon and Dorothy sold their dairy farm and built a new home across from Eastern Mennonite University.

“Dorothy and I sat down with the builder and planned the house,” Glendon said. It took more than 700 sticks of dynamite to clear the land at the top of the hill. The following spring the house was ready to move in. The Blossers could not be happier.

“Dorothy said, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing,’” Glendon recalled.

The spectacular view from the Blosser home is reminiscent of a postcard. The property covers 135 acres but on a clear day the scene is breathtaking as far as the eye can see. To the east are the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the west, the Alleghenies. The Shenandoah Valley lies to the north and south.

Glendon and Dorothy enjoyed life fully, as their family continued to grow. They had four children and 14 grandchildren. More than two decades passed before anyone discovered the invisible threat in the home.

During the summer of 2003, Dorothy developed a dry cough. At first, the doctor suspected she had developed an allergy. But after several months of taking the medicine he prescribed, her cough had not improved. She returned to the doctor.

“She said, ‘I know this is something more than an allergy. I’ve never had allergies. And why isn’t it getting better?’ ” Glendon said. “Then, the doctor said she had pneumonia. But she still didn’t get better.”

Eventually, the doctor sent Dorothy to a pulmonologist, a doctor who specializes in lung disorders.

“They said, ‘Ma’am, you’ve got lung cancer.’” Glendon said. “They said it was incurable.”

Since she had never smoked, and was careful not to be around smoke, family members and the community were surprised when Dorothy was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Many people do not realize that it is not uncommon for lung cancer symptoms to go undetected, especially for someone like Dorothy who was not considered to be at risk for lung cancer.

After his mother, was diagnosed with lung cancer, sons Floyd and Phil began researching what could have caused it. They learned that radon is the number one cause of lung cancer in people who never smoked. And that more than 20,000 Americans die from radon-induced lung cancer every year. And they were dismayed to learn that the Shenandoah Valley is a radon hotbed.

Radon is an odorless, colorless invisible gas created by the naturally occurring radioactive decomposition of uranium in the soil and bedrock. In the atmosphere, radon is not a threat. However, when it gets trapped in our homes and schools, concentrated levels pose a serious health threat. Radon causes lung cancer. More Americans will die from radon-induced lung cancer than from AIDS, drunk drivers, home fires or drowning, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Any home can have radon. However, some geographical areas are more prone to higher concentrations than others. Radon is a widespread problem in Virginia, especially in the Shenandoah Valley. The EPA designates three categories of radon potential. Yellow is the lowest; orange has an elevated risk and red has the highest known risk of radon exposure. Rockingham County, Augusta County and the friendly city of Harrisonburg are classified as radon red. Of the 95 counties and 40 cities in the Commonwealth, almost half are classified as radon red. The communities near the coast have lower potential for high radon levels.

After learning about the link between radon and lung cancer, Floyd ordered radon test kits from www.radon.com and tested the finished basement of his parents’ home without their knowledge. Within a few days, he had the results. Floyd retested the home, after discussing it with his father and Phil. The second test confirmed Floyd’s suspicions.

Radon is measured in picocuries per liter or pCi/L. The average radon level of indoor air in U.S. homes is 1.3 pCi/L. The EPA recommends homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or higher and suggests that homeowners consider fixing their home when the radon level is between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L.

The Blosser home radon level measured 37.3 pCi/L—nearly 10 times the EPA action level.

According to the EPA, all major national and international organizations agree that radon is a lung carcinogen. Major scientific organizations believe that approximately 12 % of lung cancers annually in the United States are attributable to radon. Lung cancer is the only health effect definitively linked with radon exposure, although some studies suggest there may be other health hazards from radon exposure.

Lung cancer usually occurs 5-25 years after radon exposure. Often, by the time lung cancer symptoms develop, the cancer is advanced. The majority of lung cancer patients die within a year of their diagnosis, many within weeks. As a basis of comparison, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer is about 88 percent, prostate cancer 99 %. Lung cancer’s survival rate is about 15%.

Dorothy’s cancer was inoperable. Chemotherapy was her only treatment option. She underwent chemotherapy for about six months.

Eventually, “they said there was nothing more they could do for Dorothy,” Glendon said. “Her death was so peaceful. She loved us to her last breath. We all gathered around her bed. When she was about ready to go, she was very weak. My son played some songs on the piano. She said, ‘Amen,’ and then went into a coma. She was in the coma for 23 hours.”

The program for Dorothy’s memorial service said that on June 19, 2004, Dorothy “completed a lifetime of service to others in this world.” However, Dorothy continues to serve her community, through her husband and children who want to share with others what they now know about radon.

Phil wanted to warn his neighbors about radon, but somewhere during the grieving process, “I lost my voice,” he said. After attending a lung cancer vigil in November at Grace Mennonite Church in Lacey Spring, he now says he’s found his voice again.

“This is a phenomenal place to live,” said Phil. “You’re living in a valley; it’s shielded from natural disasters. It’s green and gorgeous. We’ve got three universities. It’s a farming community. We can go skiing, we can go swimming. Everything is available right here right now in this beautiful valley. If it comes out that there’s something killing people… there’s a fear.”

But testing for radon is cheap and easy. Floyd bought three radon test kits for less than $25. And, depending on the house, mitigating a home may cost between $800-$1,200, which is significantly less than many other home repairs that are not as life threatening as radon. After receiving their high test levels, the Blossers had the home mitigated and retested one month later. The radon level was reduced to 2.4 pCi/L.

“This is Rockingham County,” said Phil. “Why is it not protocol when anybody comes in with a cough to ask: Have you had your house tested for radon? That should be the very first question they ask, instead of: Do you have allergies? It’s as if we have a volcano, an active volcano. The medical community needs to be educated on the fact that we live in a limestone community. This is a radon community.”

For more information about radon, visit www.LiveLung.org or www.epa.gov/radon.