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For 13 plaintiffs, pollution lawsuits came too late

Sandy Wierschke was supposed to be dead six months after her brain cancer diagnosis.

That was eight years ago. In July she held her first grandchild.

Wierschke, one of the 33 plaintiffs in the McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits, has overcome tremendous odds – people diagnosed with deadly glioblastoma multiforme have a 3 percent chance of being alive five years after diagnosis.

But other plaintiffs didn’t beat the odds.

Some of them were dead long before their next of kin filed suit against Ringwood chemical manufacturer Rohm and Haas, blaming air and groundwater contamination for creating an alleged cancer cluster. Others died after joining the lawsuits, and some have died in the four-year legal limbo since the first case to go to trial was abruptly ended by a Philadelphia judge.

That limbo officially ended last week when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to hear the company’s appeal of a court ruling granting plaintiff Joanne Branham a new trial.

Branham’s lawsuit, and 12 others, are on the behalf of the deceased.

n Franklin Branham

Joanne Branham met her future husband, Franklin, at the Dog n’ Suds in McHenry in 1959. He was 19, she was 17.

They married the following year, and in 1962 moved into a house in McCullom Lake, just down the street from where Joanne grew up. They had five children and outgrew it. Franklin in 1977 built them a new one with his bare hands, with the help of friends.

The Branhams moved to Arizona in 1997, and the seizures began two years later. An MRI in May 2004 revealed that he had glioblastoma multiforme. Doctors operated to remove as much as they could, but only gave him six months to live.

He barely made it one month. Just after two of his daughters arrived for a Father’s Day visit, he collapsed on his front porch and died on June 18 at age 63.

n Kurt Weisenberger

Weisenberger made a living out of building homes.

He founded his own building business, Kaw Construction, and worked on a side homebuilding venture with Franklin Branham and other local builders. He served a term as McCullom Lake’s village president in the late 1970s.

Weisenberger was fixing a culvert in his yard when he felt a sting in his head and fell over. A good Samaritan stopped to help and called paramedics. Doctors concluded in 1998 that he had a brain tumor, but it was so deep that they could not biopsy or remove it without serious risk.

After he suffered four seizures in January 2005, doctors diagnosed him with oligodendroglioma, a brain tumor so rare that only about one person in 300,000 gets it.

Doctors gave Weisenberger two years to live after his 1998 diagnosis. He made it 15, but his health declined rapidly after emergency surgery last year to remove the tumor after it doubled in size. He died Oct. 11, 2013, at age 72, leaving behind a son, daughter, and seven grandchildren.

n Judy Weisheit

Frank Weisheit met and married his wife of 42 years, Judy, shortly after his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. They lived in McCullom Lake for a while before buying a home in neighboring Ringwood, just west of the Rohm and Haas plant.

In spring 2006, Judy stormed through their front door after leaving home early from her job at a local supermarket, worriedly telling her husband, “I’ve lost it.” She had sat down to fill out a report at work, but had forgotten how to write.

Doctors diagnosed her with glioblastoma multiforme and operated immediately. She celebrated her 64th birthday on April 21 recovering at Centegra Hospital – McHenry. The first lawsuits were filed four days later.

She died Feb. 7, 2007, at age 64, leaving behind her husband and two sons. Frank told the newspaper he couldn’t wait to be reunited with her – he died in 2011.

n Susan Kalash

Dan Kalash was 17, working at a store at 51st and Halsted streets in Chicago in 1970 when 15-year-old Susan Gale walked in with a friend. It was love at first sight.

Susan’s uncle – her parents were long dead – sent her to California to keep them apart. It didn’t work – they married on Valentine’s Day 1976.

The couple spent almost every weekend staying with Dan’s parents in McCullom Lake. Dan and Susan eventually moved to the area, and Dan worked multiple jobs to feed their two children while Susan went back to school to become a licensed practical nurse.

She collapsed and went into a coma in September 1996 at the hospital where she was being evaluated for seizures. The operation revealed that she had glioblastoma multiforme. Susan knew the end was coming and just wanted to go home.

She never did – she died Oct. 17, 1996, the day before she was scheduled to be released. She was 42.

n Shelby Mazzone

Mazzone lived in McCullom Lake for 25 years before moving to Colorado. She grew up babysitting the children of another future plaintiff who would succumb to brain cancer. After she moved, the Weisheits moved into her house.

Doctors diagnosed her with a schwannoma, a tumor of the nerve linings of her right ear that eventually cost her that ear’s hearing.

Mazzone died of an unrelated cause April 19, 2008, at age 54.

n Patrick Kane

Kane stood out in a crowd, thanks to his 6-foot, 11-inch height. He actually stood more than 7 feet tall, but he hunched from his rapid childhood growth.

Doctors found that he had a tumor on his pituitary gland, and its removal finally stopped his growth at age 23.

He grew up on the McHenry side of the lake. Friends and family called him a gentle giant with a heart of gold.

Friends set him up on a dinner date Sept. 18, 1987, with his future wife, Karen McCaffrey. She knew after their first conversation stretched into eight hours that she had met her future husband. They became engaged two months later, wed the following March, and later adopted five boys.

Kane died Oct. 20, 2005, of malignant melanoma – his lawsuit, like several others, claims that pollution from the factory caused his pituitary tumor.

His death at age 51 wasn’t the only tragedy the family would face. Brain cancer claimed his mother, too.

n Marion Kane

As a child, Marion Kane lived in Chicago but her family visited her grandparents’ home on the lake every weekend. She bought the home in 1953 and lived there almost 20 years, raising five children, including Patrick.

In August 2007 she began experiencing splitting headaches. When doctors at Centegra Hospital – McHenry began leaning toward meningitis, her daughter Nancy Smith asked them if they had heard about the brain cancer lawsuits. They had, and scheduled an MRI that revealed glioblastoma multiforme.

Marion wanted to live, and went through radiation therapy, against her doctors’ advice. She died at her Fox Lake retirement home on Dec. 15, 2007, at age 75.

n John Stepp

John Stepp’s friends said he could fix just about anything.

The former mechanic and bus driver lived in McCullom Lake for 20 years. When he wasn’t fixing things, he could be found on the lake fishing. He spent much of his life machining, and driving buses for Pace and Pioneer Center for Human Services in McHenry.

The headaches started in 2005, and he started getting irritable and emotional. His condition landed him in the emergency room in September 2006, where doctors diagnosed him with glioblastoma multiforme and he underwent surgery.

Stepp got to return to his hobby of fishing, but started to give away his possessions, knowing he likely wouldn’t need them much longer.

In March 2008 he suffered a seizure that resulted in serious brain damage. His family chose to discontinue his life support and he died April 4, 2008, at age 56. He is survived by two grown sons.

n Ken Betts Sr.

As the owner in the 1960s of The Cullom Knoll restaurant, the village’s sole eatery, Betts felt that it was his obligation to give back to the community.

He used his clout to raise funds to build the village hall, and organized ice fishing derbies on the lake.

When he wasn’t working in carpentry, he was working at the restaurant, and used it to teach his kids about hard work. The family moved to McHenry in 1969.

Doctors diagnosed him in 1994 with glioblastoma multiforme and he died April 13, 1995, at age 63. He left behind five grown children and 13 grandchildren.

n Julianna Mass

Mass raised seven children as a single mother in her McCullom Lake home on the shore.

Her generosity was well-known to the neighborhood – children called her house the “peanut butter house” because any child who came to her front door asking for a peanut-butter sandwich would get one. She always set a place at the table for her children’s many friends.

The retired home health nurse loved going on adventures with her youngest child, Kristin. They backpacked through Europe and the east coast of Australia. When Julianna Mass was 60, they went bungee jumping on a trip to New Zealand.

She started getting severe headaches in 2006. She thought she had Parkinson’s disease. The MRI instead revealed glioblastoma multiforme.

She died Dec. 31, 2007, at age 68, leaving behind seven children and 14 grandchildren.

n Judy Roszak

Roszak was a dedicated daughter to her two elderly parents.

The registered nurse and mother of four would come to their house on the McHenry side of the lake several times a week to help them with whatever needed to be done.

But she also gave her time to help make the world a better place. She worked with her brother’s charity, traveling the world to build playgrounds for children in places devastated by war.

She was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme in September 2006, barely a year after her retirement. Doctors after surgery gave her six to nine months to live.

Roszak the nurse knew her odds. She decided against chemotherapy and radiation, deciding to live what time she had left to the fullest and not be bedridden by treatment. She died April 2, 2007, just six months shy of her 70th birthday.

n James Booth

Booth’s life revolved around providing for his family of eight children and stepchildren as a maintenance engineer at Follett Software Co. in McHenry.

When he allowed himself leisure time, he could be found in his garage, working on the two classic cars he had acquired.

Booth lived for more than 20 years on the McHenry side of the lake and lived only a few houses down from three other plaintiffs.

When he was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme in April 2010, he vowed to his family that he would do whatever it took to beat the disease. But doctors in February 2011 told him to get comfortable and get his house in order.

He died a month later, on March 16, at age 61.

n Lloyd Powell

Even in retirement, Powell didn’t want to sit idle.

Two years after he and his wife moved to Sun City Huntley, they built and opened Powell’s Car Wash and Detail Center – their second on top of their existing car wash business in Arlington Heights.

Powell worked his way up through his life in the manufacturing business, but always made time to fish, play golf and travel. He also loved 12-inch softball, and played third base for a team up until his retirement.

He fought a two-year battle with oligoastrocytoma brain cancer, but died Jan. 27, 2012, at age 51. He left behind his wife, two grown children and seven grandchildren.

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