On August 8, 2005, our father, John Sheaffer, died after a battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. That day marked the beginning of our search for a research institute trying to find a cure for that terrible disease and other lung diseases besides. Our search led us to the Woolcock Institute and my sisters and I named it as one of two causes to which mourners at Dad’s funeral might contribute in memory of him. Since 2005, my husband and I have been proud to be regular donors and are particularly delighted about the establishment of a lung cancer and lung diseases research centre within the Institute.
In July 1997, a CT scan of Dad’s lungs had showed two of the then three hallmarks of mesothelioma. The tumours themselves were not evident, as the respiratory physician explained to us then, but plaques were, and so was thickening of the walls. In 1950-51, Dad had worked at ICI as an engineer, supervising asbestos lagging of pipes. Although he was not continuously on the shop floor, he was certainly a constant presence. He had also been a heavy smoker, though he had given it up, cold turkey, in the late 1950s. As a small child, I remember his frustration and our worry at beginning our day, every morning with his terrible coughing. So, Dad spent more than half his life battling a mix of lung symptoms and diseases.
On discovering the news of his serious lung disease in 1997, Dad was characteristically philosophical. If it had taken so long to manifest itself, he reasoned, and if his lung function was still good, why worry? In the absence of a cure, he decided to try to forget about it, unless new symptoms appeared, requiring some action. He had lived a very full and happy life. He had escaped from Eastern Europe during WW2 as a 17-year-old, was able to settle in Sydney with his family and become an engineer, and had had a 46-year marriage to our much-loved mother, his soulmate. He had worked his way up over 27 years at Hanimex, an Australian photographic company, to become Director of Manufacturing (World Wide), leaving Hanimex in 1978 to spend the last seven years of his working life as a Commissioner on the Industries Assistance Commission and serving on the Immigration Review Tribunal as well. Though, sadly, our mother pre-deceased him by a decade, he was pursuing an active retirement, volunteering, travelling and playing bridge, as well as spending time with his three daughters, six grandchildren and many friends.
Though we noticed he was becoming frailer and he was troubled by a worsening cough, Dad did not complain and it was often a struggle to get him to a doctor. It was about two weeks before his death that things deteriorated significantly. He suffered a heart block and needed to have a pacemaker implanted. Unfortunately, he was one of many at that time whose pacemakers were not implanted successfully. He underwent three surgeries in order to implant it properly and, as a frail and elderly patient, his lungs deteriorated catastrophically and irreversibly as a result.
His very sudden deterioration and death were terrible to see. He had always been so capable, so independent, so generous, so wise and so funny – and we thought he had so many more years in which to see his grandchildren grow. It was not to be.
We wish the Woolcock Institute’s new lung cancer and lung diseases research centre well and will continue to donate to it in our father’s memory, in the sure knowledge that it will help to ensure that other good people are spared what he endured.
In memory of John Lawrence Sheaffer (1923-2005)