McCullom Lake resident Sandy Wierschke was supposed to be dead six to nine months after doctors diagnosed her in 2006 with deadly glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer.
She made it more than 10 years, defying a disease that gives its victims a 3 percent chance of being alive five years after diagnosis. She also fought in court as one of the 33 plaintiffs who alleged in lawsuits that air and water pollution from a neighboring chemical plant gave them brain and pituitary tumors.
Wierschke, who lived to see the birth of her grandson and see the cases get settled out of court, died Saturday, surrounded by family. She was 54.
Her husband, Tim, said his wife fought until the very end. She went through two brain cancer surgeries, and needed additional surgery after radiation therapy rotted out a portion of her skull.
It was not until two weeks ago that doctors stopped chemotherapy. She still was able to stand up with her walker until the week before her death.
“She just refused to give up. She just refused. She pursued every avenue,” Tim said.
Sandy and other plaintiffs sued the Rohm and Haas specialty chemical plant in neighboring Ringwood, alleging that decades of contamination from the facility caused a cluster of brain and pituitary tumors in the McCullom Lake area. The first three lawsuits – filed by three former next-door neighbors who had been diagnosed with brain tumors – were filed in April 2006.
She started getting leg spasms about six months prior, which doctors first blamed on her sciatic nerve. It was on the very day that news of the first lawsuits appeared in the Northwest Herald that she had a seizure in front of the doctor the Wierschkes had sought for a third opinion, who told her to get an MRI immediately. She was among the next three plaintiffs.
Her diagnosis ended her beloved hobby of bowling – she averaged over 200 and twice bowled a 297, three points shy of a perfect game.
“My team would bowl her team, and she would beat me two out of three times,” Tim said.
The family last year moved from their McCullom Lake home to a ranch home outside of Woodstock, which Tim had to modify to make accessible and livable for his wheelchair-bound wife.
She lived long enough to become a grandmother – her grandson, Emmett, turns 2 next month. Her other wish besides becoming a grandmother was realized last year when Tim fulfilled her lifelong dream of visiting Hawaii.
Tim and his family stayed at her side on the last day, laughing, crying and telling stories. It was right after Emmett kissed her and said he loved her that she died.
“That’s what she was waiting for … she knew it was time and that we would be OK,” Tim said.
While many of the families had hoped to have their day in court, they agreed in 2014 to accept a settlement from Dow Chemical Co., which now owns Rohm and Haas, for undisclosed sums.
While Rohm and Haas has acknowledged that decades of dumping into an unlined pit by the plant’s former owners created a plume of contaminated groundwater, the company steadfastly has denied that contaminated water or air reached or sickened residents. Past and present owners of the plant have been working for the past two decades to clean up the contamination plume.
“All I can say is she never gave up, never gave up. To the bitter end, she knew it was an injustice. To her dying day she knew the stuff in the water did it,” Tim said.