Bill Bird speaks out about the devastation he faces every day because of the effects of asbestos.
Bill Bird speaks out about the devastation he faces every day because of the effects of asbestos.

Brave to the bitter end

ALAN 'Bill' Bird may only have months to live, but he reckons he's lucky.

By rights, he should have been dead years ago and ? with a killer disease slowly eating away his life ? it's hard to imagine anyone less fortunate.

Bill is dying of asbestosis. Oxygen pumps and doctors are part of his life, yet he doesn't wallow in the unfairness of it all.

In the long, lonely moments in the small Coffs Harbour unit he shares with wife Joyce, he thinks of the men who were never given the luxury of time.

"You hear about other buggers who didn't even know they had it, they were suffocating and when they finally were diagnosed they would be dead in three months," he said.

But luck is not an adjective you'd associate with the Birds. When most couples in their twilight years are thinking about exotic travel, walking the beach and a day at bowls, they are preoccupied with the pressures of a silent killer that has ruined their lives.

The disease was back in the national headlines this week following condemnation by various union officials of asbestos producing company James Hardie. The fibre was used as a fire-resistant in the 1970s and research shows that fragments reaching the lungs can be lethal, leading to death many years later.

While Bill, now 69, did not work for James Hardie, he believes he contracted the disease while working for a Sydney company when he was in his 20s.

In those days, no one knew the danger and there was no protective clothing.

"I remember we would cut it up with power saws and you would see (dust) flying everywhere and you thought nothing of it," Bill said.

"That's the bit that hurts. You work your life and do different things and enjoy them. I had a good life and good pay and then it was all gone."

Looking back, Bill remembers that many companies were dealing with asbestos, and shakes his head in disbelief at the tragedy.

"Sometimes you find yourself getting angry and sad that other people didn't get it and you did. It just takes one fibre and then you have it," he said.

Bill is alone in his fight for breath. None of the men he worked with in Sydney contracted asbestosis and he knows no-one else who is suffering the same pain.

The Birds arrived in Coffs Harbour 32 years ago to start a family, and it was not until 1994 that Bill noticed problems with his breathing. He went to see a local doctor and, after much deliberation, was given the awful news.

After seeing specialists in Sydney, Bill was told he would have only two years left to live so he and Joyce took a small compensation package and decided to do a road trip around Australia.

They bought a four-wheel drive and a caravan but only got as far as Darwin when they came back.

On a good day, Bill may only have to use his oxygen bottle for three hours. He may even be able to take his scooter down to the shops.

On a bad day, he could be on oxygen for 12 hours and will not even make it down the hall. It can even be a strain to move from his back on to his side while in bed.

For this reason the Birds moved from their three-bedroom house to a small villa about two months ago.

"We are not rich but we are financially stable. We had to sell our house and down-grade to this unit. It gets you cranky," he said.

"Our house was near the beach with a pool and a big workshop. I renovated the place and did what we wanted but when I had to walk around it I could hardly breathe."

The Birds brought up their three children in this house and although it was great to have their five grandchildren visit, it became too hard to manage.

"The loss of breath does get you upset," Bill said.

"My brother-in-law is the same age as me but he can go for a long bushwalk ? that is what you really notice. I remember when I used to run rings around him, but that was years ago."

Bill and Joyce believe most people know little about asbestosis, even to the point where they worry whether it is contagious. Their's has become a lonely life.

"I don't know whether you have friends with something like this," Bill said. "For this reason we tend to keep to ourselves."

Bill hopes his story will serve a valueable purpose:

"If anything, I just want to warn the handy man out there and others to be careful when knocking down walls. It just takes one sheet of that stuff to break and they won't even realise what it can do to their lives."

n Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals that is mined, there are several types of flexible, fire-resistant fibres.

In the past, asbestos was added to a variety of products to strengthen them and provide heat insulation and fire resistance.

In most products, asbestos is combined with a binding material so it is not readily released into the air. But, if asbestos becomes airborne and is inhaled, it can remain in the lungs for a long period of time, producing the risk for severe health prob- lems.

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