Before the end, Henry Lawrence had become incredibly weak and dangerously thin.
He hadn’t been able to catch a proper breath in decades due to the asbestos fibres in his lungs. But the pneumonia the 87-year-old had contracted in the Brandon hospital was taking what was left of his already decimated lung capacity. Merely breathing became an act of defiance.
To make matters worse, a blight of shingles — a viral infection that causes a painful rash — had marred his legs soon after his admittance to the hospital late last fall.
If the last few years of Henry’s life had been painful and tortuous, his last few weeks were simply wretched.
His family had watched him gradually slip away, ever since his early and forced retirement in 1988 from his job as an engineer with Brandon University. He was 60 at the time. By December of last year, there wasn’t much left of Henry for his illness to take — in body or in faculties.
Yet even in his deathbed delirium, one part of his mind remained focused. Right to the last.
“Until the day he died, he had this deep feeling there was a wrong done him,” Henry’s son, Earl Lawrence, said of his father’s death. “When someone knows a wrong is done, it sticks.
“Even when he was dying, he told my sister a day or so before (he died), ‘We’re going to the (Workers) Compensation Board tomorrow because they finally paid me.’ He was hallucinating by then. It was that deeply ingrained, the wrong that was done to him, that he carried it right through to his death.
“My dad grieved over the lack of justice that was done to him. It bothered him. It’s like a person, when you’re terribly wronged, but you still remember it years later.”
Severe respiratory problems had prevented Henry from continuing on at the university and forced him to leave his longtime career. It wasn’t the first time that he had experienced problems breathing — not long after he started work at the institution in the early 1960s, he was hospitalized for what was believed to be a tuberculosis infection.
But this time the situation was different. He was constantly short of breath, and on several occasions had blacked out on the job after entering the university’s mechanical room. It had become impossible to carry on.
“If I didn’t quit, I would have been fired,” Henry said during his first interview with the Sun in 2007. “The supervisor told me I should retire, but I couldn’t find out what was wrong with me.”
In the years that followed, Henry’s condition worsened. He mortgaged his house to finance his efforts to find a reason for his condition, and though he visited several doctors, no one would tell him the cause.
It was 2004 before a Brandon doctor finally diagnosed him with asbestos-related pleural lung disease, otherwise known as asbestosis. Dr. Niki Paphitou, who was familiar with these kinds of lung injuries — but who has since returned to Greece — gave him the bad news.
“‘You got asbestos on both lungs,’ she told me. And when I asked what could be done, she said, ‘Nothing. You have 10 to 20 years left. You’ll die with cancer,’” Henry said.
In the 11 years that followed the doctor’s diagnosis, Henry fought battles on two different, yet strongly connected fronts. Always the fighter, he struggled to maintain his health and quality of life as long as he could, attempting to enjoy his remaining years with his family.
At the same time, he waged an unrelenting crusade for fair compensation for his lost wages and for recognition from the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba. Even as he was convinced of its righteousness, it was a campaign he was destined to lose.
“ Until the day he died, he had this deep feeling there was a wrong done him,” Henry’s son, Earl Lawrence, said of his father’s death. “When someone knows a wrong is done, it sticks. — Earl Lawrence
Henry suffered much throughout his remaining years. When the Sun first met him, Henry was 79 years old. He needed to use an oxygen machine at least six times per day — sometimes more. It really depended upon how he felt and how much he exerted himself. He had difficulty standing for any length of time, and he was often left gasping for air when he spoke. He was still driving around to his appointments, however.
By 2012, having lost most of his mobility, Henry had fallen several times inside his Ninth Street home, and out on the sidewalk nearby.
The asbestos fibres that were in his system had begun to work themselves out of his lungs, and through parts of his skin and body. He had undergone two operations to remove fibres from his back, and by that time, they were also protruding out of his arms and wrists.
“I feel so much pain, I just wish I wasn’t here. That’s how bad it is,” he said during one of his more lucid moments. Though he was supposed to be on daily oxygen treatments, Henry complained that his lungs would “start to burn” when he put on the oxygen mask. Too often the discomfort would prompt him to use the oxygen less than he should have — a situation that often affected his memory and left him disoriented and frustrated.
It was hardest on Lola, his wife of more than 60 years. She could no longer care for Henry as his condition worsened, and it pained her to see her once strong and independent husband endure constant agony.
“I’m afraid that sometimes he just doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Lola said in 2012. “That gives me fear.”
He was admitted to the hospital on Oct. 8 last year after he was found lying on the floor of his room in a Souris-based personal care home. It was only supposed to be for a weekend — a respite arranged by Henry’s daughter to give her mother a break.
But her father sustained a head injury from the fall and required medical attention. He would never leave the hospital.
On Dec. 9, 2014, Henry succumbed to his lengthy illness and was buried in the Brandon Cemetery.
One battle lost.
Yet even in death, Henry’s personal dispute with the WCB remains far from settled, at least from his family’s point of view. For it was upon his death that his two sons and his daughter were forced to take up their father’s cause — this time over what they believe are lost death benefits that the WCB seemingly promised years earlier.
They say it was a final indignity to their father’s memory, and a financial blow to their ailing mother.
“You know, my dad was a man of his word,” said Randy Lawrence, his youngest son. “He went to his grave thinking that at the very least, they would do this because they denied him benefits all the way along. And I mean the ultimate bait and switch was done on him. They’re claiming that they’re not going to pay it.”
A boxer, a mechanic, a family man
Among the more intriguing facts about Henry Lawrence was his brief bout as a boxer while in his late teens.
He didn’t have much schooling as a youth in Manitoba, but instead had found gainful employment at the age of 14 fixing machines and engines in Port Arthur, the northern half of what is now Thunder Bay, Ont.
He had an innate ability to understand and repair mechanical equipment.
But when his farming father took ill during the Second World War, and with all his brothers having enlisted and gone overseas, Henry returned home to Manitoba to take over running the homestead. Following the end of the war when his brothers returned, and after Henry spent a season of making bush roads in Sioux Lookout, Ont., the family moved to Glenella where his father had purchased a half section north of the town site.
Instead of taking over the farm, however, Henry went to work on a grain farm owned by a champion boxer named Manual Flat.
Approximately four years before he died, Henry gave a series of interviews to a writer named Brian Campbell, who had been seconded to the Manitoba Federation of Labour to work on special projects for claim suppression by the Workers Compensation Board. The intent, Campbell told the Sun at the time, was to write a book about Henry’s experiences, but it was never published.
In a copy of the unfinished manuscript he gave to the paper, Campbell describes much of Henry’s early life, including his brief training in the boxing ring under Flat.
“Working at his employer’s grain farm, Henry learned many new skills, including the sweet science of boxing,” Campbell wrote. “Although not necessarily the biggest of competitors, Henry soon proved that he was indeed one of the toughest, with hands like bricks and a reputation for never getting knocked out.
“That was until he accepted a bet from Manual to go punch for punch, in which he remembers throwing a real good one — and that’s about it.”
Though his fledgling boxing career was cut short rather abruptly, it was his ability to work with machinery that would eventually lead him to begin work as an engineer in Brandon — this in spite of his lack of a formal education.
Henry had met his future wife, then Lola Anderson, while working at the Amaranth limestone mine. It was a whirlwind romance. They dated three months, before getting married in Gladstone in October 1953. Though they had purchased a quarter section of land near Lake Manitoba, they decided to move to Brandon where Henry got a job at Perth’s laundry and dry cleaning, maintaining the company’s fleet of delivery trucks.
After three years at Perth’s, he took a job at the Co-op Dairy, where he learned the skills to be an operating engineer. But he didn’t have an engineer’s licence, and when he got caught, instead of being fired he was offered the chance to take a fourth-class operating engineer’s exam — a daunting task for an uneducated man. He passed.
Now with an engineering licence in his hands, and having recently become a father of three, Henry started as a full-time power engineer at Brandon University in 1963 when the co-op began laying off employees.
As part of his many duties, Henry was expected to replace crumbling asbestos-laden insulation that was wrapped around heating pipes in tunnels underneath the university. He was never provided any training or orientation, and he was never given information on the hazards to which he was about to be exposed.
Prior to the 1970s, asbestos was a popular material used in construction and many other industries because of its fire-retardant nature. Asbestos is found naturally in rock formations and is mined like other minerals, but it poses significant health risks when its fibres are inhaled, and may lead to cancer.
Acute-Hazard and Occupation Disease Fatalities, 2000 to 2013 by Cause
|Struck by Objects||35|
|Fall From Height||24|
|Explosion/ Fire/ Electrical||15|
|Excavation / Structual Failure / Confined Entry||10|
|Violence / Homicide||7|
|Acute Poisioning / Carbon Monoxide||5|
It often takes years before signs of any lung problems associated with asbestos appear.
The sheer volume of asbestos Henry and his co-workers had to handle is staggering, even by standards of the day. The process of insulating the university’s pipes and boilers required the workers to mix several 60-pound bags of asbestos-laden “insulation cement” with water.
The resulting paste would be plastered on the surface of the boiler or the pipes, and also wrapped in sheets of more asbestos as a coating or insulating cover. The temperature of the pipes would determine the curing time for the new coating — anywhere from a day to a week for the process and application to dry properly.
Working conditions for Henry and his fellow co-workers in the university tunnel system were unbearable, especially due to the oppressive heat.
“Henry and his co-workers would try to do a bulk of the insulation repair and replacement in the summer when the tunnels didn’t have as much steam pumping through them,” Campbell wrote. “But ruptures and breeches happened often to the kilometres of pipe that ran underneath the streets and throughout the institution. It was common for Henry to receive a phone call in the middle of the night (later he was given a beeper) telling him that steam was rising from the manholes on the streets. This meant that Henry and his co-workers would have to venture down beneath the street into oppressively hot tunnels to try and identify and repair the breech.
“On top of the thermal stress inflicted upon them, Henry almost half smiles when he states that ‘it was always snowing down there, like one of those little snow globes that you shake up.’ Henry is, of course, making this remark in relation to the large amounts of asbestos fibres floating throughout the air.
“The trouble light that they used down in the tunnels would have almost an amber hue about it because of all the asbestos in the air.”
Occupation Disease Fatalities, 2013
|Date of Death *||Industry||What Happened - Disease||Occupation|
|April 2004||Construction||Heart Injury||Tradesperson|
|June 2008||Public Administration||Other Cancer||Firefighter|
|October 2012||Public Administration||Other Cancer||Firefighter|
|February 2013||Construction||Heart Injury||Manager, Supervisor, Professional|
|February 2013||Transporation||Died an extended period after||Truck Driver|
|February 2013||Forestry & Logging||Asbestosis||Skilled Labourer|
|March 2013||Public Administration||Mesothelioma||Tradesperson|
|May 2013||Transportation||Mesothelioma||Skilled Labourer|
|May 2013||Manufacturing||Mesothelioma||Skilled Labourer|
|June 2013||Mining||Mesothelioma||Skilled Labourer|
|July 2013||Transportation||Heat-related injury||Truck Driver|
* — Occupation Disease fatalities are counted by year of acceptance and not by year of reporting or death
Occupation Disease Fatalities Accepted by the WCB *
In the many conversations he had with the Brandon Sun over the years, Henry always maintained that he had asked the university management for protective masks, a request that he said was ultimately denied.
“I’d asked for masks, but they said that stuff won’t hurt you,” Henry told the Sun in a 2007 conversation. “We had to brush it away and mix new stuff.”
But the fire in his lungs that erupted every time he and his fellow engineers worked with the substance — whether tearing out crumbling asbestos insulation or mixing it by hand — told a different story. So, too, did the copious amounts of water they drank just to force down the fibres caught in their throats.
In a 2008 report, Winnipeg-based physician and internal and occupational medicine specialist, Dr. Allen Kraut, notes that Henry did not use any respiratory protection “until the five years before he retired.”
Former Brandon University power engineer Jack Dodds, who worked alongside Henry for several years, said all the maintenance staff were exposed to asbestos to varying degrees. But it was Henry, he says, who did most of the work within the tunnels, together with fellow engineer Lloyd Phillips.
“Henry did a lot of mechanical, piping and that sort of thing,” Dodds said. “Every one of us did various things. And we all worked with asbestos to some degree.”
Dodds, who currently suffers from unrelated health problems, said recent tests have shown that he, too, has asbestos particulates in his body.
“It hasn’t been a major factor for me, but I’ve been told that there are some crystals.”
When contacted by the Sun last June, Lloyd Phillips’ daughter said that her father passed away several years ago from prostate cancer, unrelated to his asbestos exposure.
The tuberculosis scare
Not long after he began working for Brandon University, Henry took ill with an unknown respiratory condition. After a visit to his physician, Dr. A.H. Povah, he was diagnosed with possible tuberculosis.
Henry’s full medical records from that period of his life, which were recently obtained by the Sun, show that a routine chest X-ray on Nov. 30, 1964 showed an “increase in pulmonary fibrosis” in the right upper lobe of his lungs. A history sheet that appears to have been dictated on April 4, 1965, shows that Henry had been a patient in the St. Boniface Sanitorium between 1951 and 1952, and a second time in 1954.
In that second visit to the sanitorium, he was given Strephomycin and para-amino-salicylic acid (P.A.S.), two drugs used in the treatment of tuberculosis.
The history sheet also listed a record of past illnesses, including measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chicken pox. It also mentions that Henry had worked in a gyprock mine “six years before developing tuberculosis.”
He was admitted to the hospital for the removal of the right upper lobe of his lung, as part of a routine check for the disease. The resulting pathological report of the removed tissued stated there was “widespread old fibrosis associated with clumps of lymphocytes,” and that scattered throughout the tissue were “multiple healing caseating granulomas assicated with giant cells.”
According to a document dated May 7, 1965, after drainage tubes had been removed following his operation, the remaining portions of the right lung were reported clear, as was the fully intact left lung.
A followup report dated June 2, 1965, suggested that Henry did not have tuberculosis, after an earlier acid-fast bacilli (AFB) test — used to detect an active TB infection — came back negative. Whether that test was conducted before or after his operation is not clear from the record.
What is certain, however, is that his medical report shows his lungs were clear of any infection when — now broke from his long recuperation — he returned to his young family in Brandon and to his position with the university.
It would be this early diagnosis of tuberculosis that would later come back to haunt Henry as he sought aid from the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba. Especially troubling was the fact that these medical records would become apparently “lost” or missing from the hospital files when he needed them most.
Soon after his initial retirement, Henry went back to work at the university for a brief period of time — about six months — in the capacity of a trainer for new physical plant workers. He did so mostly out of a sense of responsibility to his former employer, but beyond what his health ultimately allowed.
In that short time, just before he finally ended his relationship with BU, he had become more of a director/supervisor of up to seven workers in that department.
Submission, denial, appeal, repeat
Within the many filing cabinets of Drew Caldwell’s constituency office on 10th Street is a hefty file of paperwork more than six inches wide.
From the Brandon East NDP MLA’s initial contacts with the WCB, to his disappointing last appeal, the file is essentially a case history of the last decade of Henry’s Lawrence’s fight for compensation — a blow by blow of every letter, file, and note between him and the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba. It also includes medical files, doctors’ letters, and discussions held with local law firms regarding the possibility of legal action.
From the start, Caldwell has been involved in the file, working on Henry’s behalf to get him financial compensation for his workplace injury. In fact, several people gave their time on Henry’s behalf, including former Brandon West MLA Rick Borotsik.
Without any hesitation, Caldwell says the process was an extremely frustrating one.
“Originally when we first started this file, and it was roughly 10 years ago, he was trying to get compensation for the intervening years ... from when he quit his job because he was having breathing problems, to the time of his retirement age of 65,” Caldwell said in a phone conversation last May.
“They denied that.”
Henry first filed his claim for asbestos exposure and breathing difficulties on June 14, 2004. His application stated that although his asbestosis diagnosis was not made until 2004, he had suffered from the effects of his lung condition for several years. That condition, he argued, is what forced his early retirement.
Typically the extent of a worker’s impairment is determined by a review of the file or through an examination by a health-care professional, according to the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba website.
The degree of impairment is explained as a percentage of a patient’s body function as a whole, according to the WCB’s Permanent Partial Impairment Rating Schedule. For example, the loss of an index finger would be a five-per-cent impairment rating, while losing the sight in both eyes would be a 100-per-cent impairment rating.
“ “In life, it was a horror story for them dealing with workers compensation. And in death, it continues.” — Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell
After Compensation Services “confirmed the worker’s employment and the diagnosis,” Henry’s claim was initially deemed “compensable” on Jan. 14, 2005. Board documents show that after having pulmonary function tests the following August, he was given an uncorrected impairment rating of 8.46 per cent.
However, the board decided that not all of Henry’s ailments were due to his asbestos exposure, and his impairment rating needed “correction for air flow limitation which is not related to pleural plaque. It also requires correction for chronic rhinitis which would give symptoms of cough and sputum production. The final correction is for surgery on the right lung where a part of the right lung was removed. This would tend to reduce the total lung capacity and diffusion capacity. The corrected rating therefore is 1.5 per cent.”
Both the adjudicative and Review Office levels of the WCB also found that he was not entitled to wage loss benefits.
Henry’s appeal of that decision did not go well. The Appeal Commission held a hearing on Sept. 21, 2006 where he tried to explain that his breathing difficulties and blackouts were caused by his asbestos exposure, and as a consequence, he should be given his due.
By his family’s account, Henry went in unprepared, believing that the board was acting in his best interests.
“He just went to the appeal board on the assumption that they had integrity and they were going to take everything into account. And they didn’t,” Earl said. “And he didn’t have nobody with him. He didn’t have any evidence.
“They were all friendly, and dad believed them. And then he went to appeal, and then it was too late. It was too late to go back and get the records from the hospital and make another appeal, and go before somebody.”
In its final analysis, the appeal board based its decision to deny the appeal on two tests performed in 2001 and 2005 that “overwhelmingly suggest the worker would have been able to carry out his regular duties with his employer in September 1988.” The board wrote that it was “more likely than not” that Henry didn’t have any medical restrictions that were related to his asbestos exposure that could have led to a loss of earning capacity.
The public decision document also shows that the WCB disregarded a letter written by Henry’s family physician, dated Aug. 31, 2006, in which he suggested that all of his patient’s breathing problems were related to his asbestos exposure.
Instead, the board deferred to a statement in a referral letter that noted Henry suffered from both asbestos-related disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as the medical report of a respiratory specialist who wrote that the pleural plaques in Henry’s lungs that were due to asbestos did not require specific treatment. It was the COPD, he said, that required treatment.
“ “It isn’t generally kind of a ‘you call in sick and you can’t work anymore when you’re young,’ kind of disease. Lots of times, it’s basically health care and other sorts of benefits we supply rather than wage replacement. And if you die from it, there’s benefits that accrue as long as the cause of death is due to work-related asbestosis or mesofilioma.” — Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba spokesman Warren Preece
The WCB’s medical consultant reported that Henry’s X-rays showed evidence of the prior lobectomy on this right lung, and “two small areas of pleural thickening on the left side,” related to his asbestos exposure. He did not believe that the changes in the left lung would have caused Henry any impairment.
Another unnamed doctor also downplayed the impact of the asbestos-related disease on Henry’s condition as compared to the COPD, stating: “There is no doubt that he will complain to you about the fact that this is all related to asbestos and asbestos-related lung disease. He has no evidence of asbestosis, only evidence of benign asbestos-related pleural disease — fortunately.”
“At the first appeal, they kept hammering previous lung disease, previous lung disease,” Earl said. “My brother was there. But Randy said every time something would come up … it was previous lung disease … previous lung disease. And they just hammered that. And that’s Randy’s exact words ... They hammered previous lung disease, like ... his lungs were going because of something else, not the asbestos.”
While Henry was again denied his lost wages upon appeal, the board started giving him payments of $100 per month to help him mow his lawn and do any repair work around the house.
Then in 2007, his impairment rating was corrected to 11.5 per cent, which was reduced to an eight per cent compensable condition — once again due to the seemingly unrelated conditions of asthma and his previous lobectomy. And still, he was denied lost wages, though his monthly payments increased to $120, and eventually to $200.
The WCB’s stance on denying lost wages when it comes to asbestos exposure is not unusual. Though he told the Sun this past April that he could not speak to details regarding specific cases, WCB spokesman Warren Preece said asbestosis is a late onset disease that typically occurs long after a person has quit working.
“It isn’t generally kind of a ‘you call in sick and you can’t work anymore when you’re young,’ kind of disease,” Preece said. “Lots of times, it’s basically health care and other sorts of benefits we supply rather than wage replacement. And if you die from it, there’s benefits that accrue as long as the cause of death is due to work-related asbestosis or mesofilioma.”
Under current labour laws, the WCB and Brandon University maintain they are immune from any litigation. Though Henry was aware of this, he kept pushing. He contacted a Brandon law firm, which took up his case and investigated whether the WCB was assailable by any legal means. Ultimately, the legal avenue never bore fruit.
By 2012, after eight years, dozens of medical tests, three unfavourable WCB decisions and three failed appeal hearings, the case against him — according to Caldwell — ultimately boiled down to this: Henry was ineligible for full compensation for his work-related injuries because he could not prove he had no prior lung condition before becoming an employee at BU.
“The bar that kept on moving throughout the last decade with WCB — submission of medical reports, denial, appeal,” Caldwell said in 2012. “Submission of new information, denial, appeal. Submission, denial, appeal — always on the basis of, well, he had messy lungs when he came in.”
His monthly payments gradually rose to nearly $200 — still a far cry from any substantial aid.
The board’s reasons for denying his claim was made more frustrating for Henry because he recalled a doctor giving him a clean bill of health in the mid-1960s after his lobectomy.
While there was medical proof that he had part of his lung removed, he could not prove he had clean lungs when he started working at BU. Despite the efforts of doctors, the WCB, and various advocates and hospital staff, his early records had gone missing and could not be located.
Having exhausted all his appeals to the WCB, Henry’s case seemed to have hit a dead end until the summer of 2012, when a staff member at the Brandon hospital who Henry had befriended, conducted a search of some of the facility’s old microfiche files on his behalf.
Not long after making a promise to help him find the missing files, the hospital employee handed Henry a stack of his old medical records from the 1960s — the same ones quoted earlier, including the one that noted his left lung and the remaining portion of his right lung were “clear.”
Having been given permission to act on Henry’s behalf, Caldwell’s office submitted a request to the chief appeal commissioner of the Workers Compensation Appeal Commission to revisit Henry’s case, based on new evidence from the once-missing files.
But that, too, was a dead end.
“At the end of the day, they said find files that show you didn’t have a pre-existing condition,” Caldwell said. “Which we did. And then they told us, it’s too late. We already denied it. So it’s too late. It wasn’t a very satisfactory process with these people.
“In life, it was a horror story for them dealing with workers compensation. And in death, it continues.”
Overflowing bags and boxes lie scattered throughout the house.
They’re stacked on the kitchen table and the nearby countertop. They lie on the living room floor, with more in the entrance and on the stairwell, unmoving on wearied carpets.
Most of the boxes are filled with food tins, cereal boxes or other dry goods. Still others are heaped with clothing that has long gone unused. It’s the model of a careworn home.
At the foot of a large-screen television on the north wall of the modest living room sits a large fraying box adorned with memories — several old photos and mementoes of happier times are visible underneath the flaps.
A few images, however, have escaped being packed away and still sit upon the shelf above the TV. Among the more recent pictures of smiling grandchildren, two images stand out.
One is a picture of Lola and Henry Lawrence taken back in the early 1970s when the couple still owned a farm near Lake Manitoba, north of Amaranth, even though they lived in Brandon. The other is a portrait of Henry at 19, made about a year before they were married.
Clearly this latter one is among Lola’s favourites. It shows Henry as a young man in the peak of health, and sporting the pencil moustache he wore most of his life. There’s no trace of the deep lines in the ashen-coloured face that eventually marked his last years alive.
It’s the photo Lola used for display at his funeral last December.
Off in the corner to the left of the mantel are images of faith — clasped hands beneath a painting of Christ.
“ “I thought that after he retired, he’d be able to have a little bit of an easy life for himself and could maybe travel places and things. He worked hard all his life and for his family, and this is what he got out of it.” — Lola Lawrence, Henry’s widow
For nearly 46 years, Henry and Lola Lawrence called the little bungalow on Ninth Street their home. Now with him gone, his widow is haunted by his absence.
“He was a most wonderful, kind-hearted person,” Lola says, while seated on a wide sofa, grasping a damp tissue one day last May. “He never thought of himself. I thought that after he retired, he’d be able to have a little bit of an easy life for himself and could maybe travel places and things. He worked hard all his life and for his family, and this is what he got out of it.”
Coming to terms with the reality of his death from asbestosis, however, may be easier than the reality facing the family in the here and now. Henry’s death was not just an emotional blow for his widow, it was also a major financial one.
In the years that immediately followed his premature retirement from Brandon University, the strain of dealing with his asbestosis, coupled with his fight for compensation with the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba, forced Henry to take on a great deal of debt.
In order to fund his efforts to find a cause for his breathing problems, he had to take out a new mortgage on his home. Henry’s youngest son Randy says there’s still more than $70,000 left to pay.
Payments on the house have become a huge financial burden for Henry’s widow, who has no retirement pension of her own — not only did Henry handle all the finances, but he was the couple’s sole breadwinner.
Upon his death, Henry’s retirement pension was cut in half, and his old age pension ended, leaving Lola to pay for the home out of whatever funds she had left. The family is very concerned that she will eventually have no option but to sell the house.
“That’s one of my greatest fears, that she will have to move,” Randy said. “She’d be devastated. She’d be absolutely devastated if she had to move out of there. She’s a very independent lady, and she wants to carry on with life as she sees fit, just like any of us.”
Adding to the problem was the $14,000 funeral costs that Lola had to pay after Henry died — costs that neither she nor her children expected to have to pick up, based on what they viewed as a promise made by the WCB years earlier.
The other shoe
Not long after Henry’s first appeal for compensation was denied in 2006, he called in to a radio talk show and told his story over the airwaves. He would later tell the Sun that the WCB contacted him afterward to say that they would pay for his and his wife’s burial costs.
“How nice,” he said. “I don’t need it after I’m dead.”
But his sarcasm belied a substantive fear for what would happen to his wife after he passed on. As his health grew worse, it took on a growing importance for him. For this reason, he continued trying to improve his lot with the WCB.
He couldn’t go back to work to earn more money for the household, and he was getting nowhere with his injury claim. The last he could hope for was that the WCB would take care of his wife when he was gone.
In letters dated March 23, 2007, and again in March 21, 2012, the WCB outlined the conditions necessary for Henry’s estate to gain death benefits.
The 2012 letter, which was sent in reply to Henry’s inquiry as to whether it was possible for an early payment of any potential death benefits, clearly states that any payments would only be payable in the event that his death was “directly related” to his compensable condition — i.e. his asbestos exposure at Brandon University.
“Please be advised that should you pass away and it is determined by the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba that your death is directly related to your compensable condition, your spouse would be entitled to the following: 1. Initial death benefit of $6,190. 2. Lump sum payment of $34,030 which could be converted into an annuity option,” read the letter, recently obtained by the Sun.
It wasn’t exactly what Henry had been hoping for, but his son Earl says that it gave his father some peace of mind that Lola would have some help from the WCB after he was gone.
“I remember coming home from Winnipeg. I drove him in there, because he was getting sick at that time. He showed me this letter, and he said, ‘My son, at least they’re going to bury me. That’s real nice of them. But they promise to bury me and mom, giving me a death benefit,’” Earl said.
“When he passed away, I remembered that.”
In order to claim any benefit, the WCB required a copy of the applicant’s death certificate from his estate.
Henry’s personal physician, Dr. Stephanus Engelbrecht — apparently not realizing the need for a deeper explanation — failed to mention the underlying causes of his patient’s death.
“Dr. Englelbrecht wrote on the death certificate that his heart stopped. So the compensation board came back and said we’re not even paying death benefits because he didn’t die of asbestosis,” Earl said.
At the family’s request, Dr. Engelbrecht did attempt to clarify his remarks on the death certificate before the WCB made its decision. In the week that followed their father’s death on Dec. 9, he wrote a letter to the WCB explaining his error.
“The cause of death was stated as cardiorespiratory arrest,” Dr. Engelbrecht wrote. “The comorbid or contributing conditions were asbestos pleural lung disease and lower respiratory tract infection, as well as difficulty swallowing with risk of aspiration. His generalized weakness and weight loss was a result of his chronic lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asbestos pleural lung disease.
“Unfortunately, I failed to document the asbestos pleural lung disease on his death certificate.”
In making its initial decision to deny any death benefits, the WCB relied on the opinion of its own health-care consultant who reviewed medical documentation from the time that Henry was admitted into the hospital, to his death on Dec. 9.
It’s not clear whether the consultant reviewed Dr. Engelbrecht’s letter at the time or not, but he nevertheless documented that the medical evidence did not support the notion that Henry’s asbestosis contributed to his death. Compensation Services made the final determination on Feb. 10 of this year that Henry’s estate was not eligible for death benefits.
For the still-grieving family, the board’s decision was beyond belief.
“My God, he had operations for asbestos coming out of his back,” Randy said. “You know it’s absolutely incredible that they would say that, no, this is not a problem.”
“It was just the end stage,” Earl added. “My dad’s heart stopped, but it stopped because of his disease. The end result of that disease is that your heart stops.”
Left with little choice but to appeal the decision, Henry’s two sons decided to enlist the help of an advocate from the Brandon and District Worker Advocate Centre Inc., Garnet Boyd.
On the family’s behalf, Boyd wrote a letter asking that the decision be revisited, a request that eventually came before the WCB’s review office.
In the letter, the advocate stated his belief that the WCB’s consultant — a Dr. Barnes — did not review all of the evidence, stating that he was only able to make a premature analysis based on the hospital admittance information. Boyd asserted that the consultant had never mentioned Dr. Engelbrecht’s letter.
“The decision should be reversed and allow the claim for death benefits,” Boyd wrote, “... not only because it is the right thing to do but because his untimely death was due to his compensable injury and claim.”
Yet neither Dr. Engelbrecht’s letter, nor Boyd’s plea on behalf of the family, changed the outcome. An official copy of the Review Office’s decision was mailed out to the family April 28, in which it outlined the reasons for denying the claim.
“ “My God, he had operations for asbestos coming out of his back. You know it’s absolutely incredible that they would say that, no, this is not a problem.” — Randy Lawrence
The Review Office disputed the advocate’s understanding of Henry’s many ailments, stating that the representative had “several misconceptions” regarding the history of Henry’s claim. While the WCB accepted the diagnosis of plural plaques and interstitual fibrosis of the lungs, due to Henry’s asbestos exposure, the office stated that there were several non-compensable and co-occurring medical complications affecting Henry when he filed his claim to the time of his death.
It was a laundry list of illness, including chronic rhinitis, asthma, his previous lobectomy, heart issues, chronic pancreatitis, anemia, bronchiectasis, dementia, COPD and renal failure. None of these, apparently, has any connection to his asbestosis.
They also took issue with Dr. Engelbrecht’s assessment of Henry’s death, stating that the “worker’s physician has advocated on the worker’s behalf throughout the history of the claim.” The Review Office wrote that Dr. Engelbrecht’s “thoughts” on the Henry’s co-occurring medical conditions and their relationship to his asbestosis over the years have continuously been in contrast with the WCB health-care advisor’s opinions, and those of several specialists.
“Because he’s your family doctor, and you’ve had him for years, he’s prejudiced,” Boyd said, paraphrasing the Review Office letter. “He knows the case history of this patient much better than the WCB doctor. They almost refuse to tie the two of them together.”
That the WCB ignored the medical opinion of Henry’s physician did not come as a surprise, Boyd said. In fact, he said, it happens so often that several doctors of his acquaintance will no longer give supporting documentation to the WCB on behalf of their patients because they say it’s a waste of their time.
“These are coming from orthopaedic surgeons,” Boyd said. “They say (the WCB representatives) do what they want to anyway. They’ll give documentation, and then it’s overruled by the WCB doctor, whoever they have on retainer. And these people have never seen a patient. They don’t know if the patient is coming in by wheelchair or crutches or what. They’re only going by a piece of paper.
“A lot of practitioners are getting very frustrated.”
In spite of repeated attempts to contact Dr. Engelbrecht, he did not make himself available for an interview with the Sun.
It’s also worth noting that the Review Office even took issue with Boyd’s reference to Henry’s passing as his “untimely death.” The tone of the remarks by the Review Office in response was quite cool:
“As a result of his compensable condition, the Review Office notes Statistics Canada documents that for those born prior to 1930, life expectancy is less than 60 years. The worker was 87 years old, 27 years beyond normal life expectancy when he died.”
The family has decided to appeal the Review Office’s decision, but it could be several months before the case comes before the WCB’s Appeal Commission.
In the meantime, Earl says the Lawrence family is left wondering if going through the process will do any good. Following the established process didn’t appear to help their father, he said.
“It seems to be something everybody wants to keep quiet because, who knows where it goes to,” Earl said. “It was obvious dad got it (at the university). They admitted it. They know how deadly it is. They know it killed him. But yet they won’t do anything about it.”
The Review Office stated that the letters regarding death benefits that were sent to Henry in 2007 and 2012 should never have been regarded as promissory notes or “pre-approvals of assured benefits” — though Henry obviously took them to be exactly that.
The decision by the Review Office was disquieting for Caldwell, even after a decade of experience working on this file.
Most concerning, he said, was that the Review Office was passing judgment on Henry’s case based upon the medical convictions of a doctor who had never examined him.
“I think that’s utterly absurd. And I think it’s unconscionable frankly that you would have a physician who has not even seen the patient, contradict physicians who are in daily contact with the patient,” Caldwell said.
“I find that unconscionable.”
More frustrating, Caldwell says, is the lack of any meaningful action that could make changes within the Workers Compensation Board. Though Manitoba has a cabinet minister responsible for the WCB, the board itself is completely independent — an insurance company funded by employers.
As a result, Caldwell believes there’s no role for government to play, especially when it comes down to individual cases. While government can amend the legislation that governs the board, Henry’s situation is not a legislative issue, but rather a judgment issue based upon the board’s own internal processes.
“This is workers compensation being … I think, quite unfair to people.”
In Randy’s opinion, the board took advantage of his father’s trusting nature. They broke faith, he says, with a man who worked hard for his entire life, and wanted fair acknowledgement of the harm that was done to him.
“My dad went to his grave believing that these guys… that the WCB was going to do the right thing,” Randy said in an interview given a few weeks before the Review Board’s decision.
“We just can’t let this drop. If they don’t do the proper thing and carry on with the settlement, then we’ll have to go to the appeal board and appeal. And if we’re not successful there, we’ll have to carry it on in any way we can.”
Having watched their father’s illness leave him wasted and frail, and the effect that Henry’s history of poor health has had on their mother, Earl says he and his siblings have no choice but to keep trying — for the sake of their father’s memory, and for their mother’s well-being.
Though late to his father’s crusade, he believes his father would still want justice done — and that in some small way perhaps it still can be.
“This is really for my dad,” Earl said. “I would love to go to his grave and say, ‘Dad, you won. You got ’em.’ That’s what I want."