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Stoical asbestosis victim lives with ruined lungs

Terry Theis has always been a tough guy, whether hoisting a 400-pound pipe at a job site or throwing his shoulder into a fullback on the football field. A steamfitter by trade, he was an all-star strong safety for the Baltimore Eagles, the only player to have his number retired by the semi-pro football club.

Now he's lucky if he can walk to the courthouse without gasping for air.

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At 54, Terry Theis has asbestosis. His lungs are scarred by tiny asbestos fibers, and he is slowly suffocating. His breath sometimes is so shallow that he lies awake, careful not to wake his wife, and wonders what it's like to be buried alive.

The Theises won a $2.5 million verdict in the consolidated asbestos trial that ended Thursday, but that is little consolation to them.

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"Money is really not our god," Mr. Theis says. "If I had the money I would give it back tenfold to have healthy lungs and to see our grandchildren go to high school."

Aside from being among the first of more than 10,000 plaintiffs to have his case tried, Terry Theis is in many ways the everyman in Baltimore's asbestos litigation.

He's one of more than 7,000 plaintiffs said to suffer from some form of asbestos lung disease, and like many of them, he worries that he'll join the much smaller group that has cancer. Though bitter, he keeps a stoic bearing typical of the working men who face bleak medical futures but won't dump their fears on wives and families.

"They have trouble even telling their doctors how they feel," says Ted Flerlage, a lawyer in Peter G. Angelos' firm, which represents most of Baltimore's asbestos plaintiffs.

Mr. Theis looks at his wife and says, "It's a guy thing. I'm not going to tell her, 'I don't feel good, I'm not breathing well.' "

Joanne Theis knows her husband's moods. "If I see him getting quiet, I leave him alone."

On a recent evening, the Theises sat in their homey rancher in southwest Baltimore and reflected on their roles in the nation's -- largest asbestos case. They talked of Mr. Theis' life, starting with a boyhood spent playing ball in the Walbrook section of West Baltimore. He played three sports at Southern High.

He hated his one desk job and found the work he loved through an uncle, who got him an apprenticeship as a steamfitter. Mrs. Theis laundered the work clothes that were white with asbestos dust -- now she now worries that she'll get sick, too.

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They smiled, reminiscing about the years when he played semi-pro football for $10 a game. His teammates called him "Redbird" because of his flaming hair.

"He was fast," recalls former teammate Mike Davidson. "He was a hell of a tackler."

In 1974, when his battered knee could take no more, his No. 10 jersey was retired before a game at Patterson Park's Utz Twardowicz Field.

At 6 foot 2, 220 pounds, with thick arms, Terry Theis looks as if he still could play football. But these days he pitches slow-pitch softball. He says it's the only time he doesn't think about his disease.

"With every breath you realize it's not getting better. . . . You're just a shell of what used to be," says Mr Theis, who works as a construction superintendent at J. F. Fischer Inc.

Given the mathematics of complex civil litigation, the Theises expect to receive about a fifth of the $2.5 million verdict won in December. The verdict is effectively reduced because they settled their claims with seven of the 11 companies they sued. Also, a third of what they get goes to the lawyers.

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And who can say how long the companies that lost at trial will appeal the case and hold up any payment? To get money sooner, some plaintiffs who win at trial settle the case for less than the total verdict, says Charles A. Candon of the Angelos firm.

Mr. Theis says his settlements add up to about $300,000, and he's received about a third of that so far. "We're not instant millionaires, if that's what people are thinking."

Mr. Theis, a father of two, was one of five "illustrative" plaintiffs in a seven-month trial that gave more than 1,000 shipyard and construction workers the right to pursue claims against asbestos companies.

Mr. Flerlage says Mr. Theis was chosen to testify because he is articulate, and among the victims who were exposed in the 1960s and 1970s and still are working.

Also, his work as an apprentice steamfitter in the 1960s allowed him to tell the jury how asbestos was used during construction at city landmarks such as the Murphy Homes public housing complex and the downtown federal office building.

Day after day, month after month, Mr. and Mrs. Theis went to court. On hot and humid days last summer, Mr. Theis could not make the five-block walk from his attorneys' office to the courthouse without stopping to catch his breath.

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In court, the Theises were outraged by the tales of corporate betrayal to workers and by the companies' denials of wrongdoing. They endured testimony showing that asbestosis sufferers are likely to get cancer.

The most recent trial, like previous asbestos cases, included descriptions of the agonizing death that comes from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining or abdomen.

Carroll Morrow, a 72-year-old pipefitter from Lutherville who suffered from mesothelioma, won a $7 million verdict in December and died before the final phase of his trial ended.

At one point in the proceedings, Mr. Morrow left the courtroom rather than hear the grim description of his fate; Mr. Theis sat with him.

Heart-rending stuff, but only about 4 percent of the more than 10,000 plaintiffs suffer from mesothelioma, Mr. Flerlage says. Up to three-quarters of that group, which includes Mr. Theis, have an asbestos lung disease.

Mr. Theis, for years a member of Steamfitters Local 438, says he knows more than 100 people in different trades who have asbestosis.

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"There's a sense of betrayal. There's a sense of anger," he says.


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