John McNamara: 4/27/46-10/7/2007
by Seth Davidson
San Pedro, CA – October 8, 2007
John McNamara’s voice fell silent, once and for all, on October 7, 2007. The voice of a champion, the voice of a husband, the voice of a father, the voice of a patient, the voice of a veteran, the voice of a hero, the voice of an advocate, the voice of a friend, the voice of a man demanding justice, the voice of a seer, the voice of a fighter, the voice of a peacemaker–each of these myriad voices and a thousand more fell silent on Sunday, more than three years after John was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma.
The reverberations of John McNamara’s voices, however, resonate with the same strength and power as on any other day, because the voice of truth speaks forever.
“I met John shortly after he was diagnosed,” said friend and attorney John Caron. “After five minutes you realize you’re spending time with a lifelong friend. He took on life with extraordinary energy, and his fight against meso was the same way. He didn’t know the meaning of rest. Shortly after surgery he was walking, hiking, then calling from the top of Diamond Head with his daughters, laughing to say he’d passed a bunch of younger people, none of whom appeared to have mesothelioma. That’s the same energy he poured back into the meso community.”
Like tens of thousands before him, John was struck down by mesothelioma in the prime of his life. Even with mesothelioma, at the age of 61 John’s “prime of life” was a force to reckon with. Two days before he died, John and his beloved T.C. were in Washington, D.C. with their “band of meso brothers” advocating for increased medical research on this dreaded disease.
The foundation of his life was his marriage to T.C. More than thirty years of passion, love, commitment, struggle, and partnership had molded John into the iron man-mountain that he was. Despite the bad odds, the frequent hospital visits, and the roller coaster of emotions all cancer survivors ride, if you spent one minute around this dynamic duo you felt that everything was possible. After his surgery, radiation therapy, and interferon treatments, John seemed to be riding the crest of a beautiful wave, propelled by powerful forces, without end.
Even when the end came, his doctors puzzled over the exact precipitating cause. John suffered a recurrence of his cancer in early September, but his doctors opined that the likely cause of death was pneumonia brought on by an aggressive and swift infection.
“John was an incredible warrior who approached mesothelioma like he approached life, with individuality, vigor and courage,” reflected Dr. Robert Cameron, thoracic oncologist at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine who operated on John in November, 2005.
“He never acknowledged the suffering that he endured, even to the end,” continued Dr. Cameron, who helped treat John at his hotel in Washington when John suddenly experienced severe back pain and numbness while the two were attending a mesothelioma medical symposium. “John dedicated himself to helping others with the disease, even when his own life was in jeopardy. His passing will be a sad loss for the entire mesothelioma community.”
John and T.C. were always thankful for the extra time they believed Dr. Cameron gave them. When he was first diagnosed, local doctors soberly predicted that John only had a few months to live, and that aggressive treatments would be futile.
Good works from the heart of a great man
The McNamaras understood that mesothelioma patients faced a gauntlet once they received their diagnosis. The biggest hurdle is access to treatment. For patients who live far from the East or West coasts, travel and lodging logistics consume precious time, money, and emotional energy.
Having gone through the wringer, John immediately put himself in the shoes of those not fortunate enough to live near UCLA, and for whom a consultation at UCLA’s mesothelioma program with Dr. Cameron would be an unbearable burden. The McNamaras decided to help ease the burden for others. They rented an apartment, furnished it, and made it available for free to mesothelioma patients visiting Los Angeles to consult with Dr. Cameron.
Kerry Kelley, whose husband Kermit underwent surgery in October and who stayed at the McNamara’s mesothelioma apartment, calls the McNamaras “a godsend. John and T.C. didn’t know us. But they knew what we were going through. We couldn’t have done this without them.”
John knew that his own experience with mesothelioma was invaluable, and rather than dwell on his own situation he took every opportunity to contribute and to support the cause of eradicating mesothelioma. Every year at the MARF mesothelioma symposium, John was there. Slapping backs, importuning legislators, encouraging patients, interrogating researchers, he awed those around him with his courage and good cheer. Hope, the resource always in shortest supply for mesothelioma patients, was as close as John’s ten-acre smile, in unlimited quantities.
“He was an empowering, courageous man,” says Linda Reinstein, executive director and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. “He told me about his next great goal-to climb Half Dome. That unconquerable, sheer granite face that looks impossible, but that you can get up if you take it one step at a time. It’s a meso march. One step at a time. And John had it in his sights.”
John’s “Bully Pulpit”
When the 2007 conference came around, John cheerfully made plans to attend once again as a donor, spokesman, and leader for the patient community. Before the October symposium, however, he learned that his cancer had returned. This time it had metastasized as a tumor on his spine. His physician counseled him to stay at home and gather his strength for an operation to remove the tumor.
Stay at home? John McNamara? Miss the most important mesothelioma advocacy conference of the year due to a life-threatening tumor? Refuse to mount the steps and hold forth from his bully pulpit? For John McNamara, the risks were worth the reward.
He packed his bags and arrived at the conference full of vigor and ready to lead the charge one more time. On Thursday evening John joined the mesothelioma community on the steps of our nation’s Capitol, where he lent his powerful voice to a candlelight vigil honoring those who had succumbed to the ravages of asbestos. His voice and the voices of thousands of others had coalesced into something concrete: passage of U.S. Senator Patty Murray’s Ban Asbestos Act.
“You know, if it wasn’t for Dr. Cameron, I wouldn’t be here,” John mused on Thursday. “I wouldn’t be anywhere. This cancer, I don’t have time for it. I have young children to raise and important things to do-like making sure they get good report cards.”
John’s priorities were grounded in the bedrock of his family. He felt that his obligations as a father were the most important ones he had, and he had no intentions of letting meso interfere.
The symposium saw John at his full-blown best, making new friends who walked away feeling like they’d known him since childhood. He chatted up countless strangers, people who lost “stranger” status after the first five seconds, and lectured them about the importance of investing in real estate. If you had a hand, and you were at the 2007 symposium, it was shaken by John McNamara. If you had a soul, he looked into it, and left you smiling.
Jessica Like, executive director of the Pacific Heart, Lung & Blood Institute, spoke eloquently about John and his journey. “Three days ago I was present when Senator Patty Murray said, ‘When someone with great passion dies, that passion is passed along to someone else,’ as she addressed a congregation of mesothelioma patients. As I listened to her speech sitting next to T.C., I thought about John’s absolute passion for life. Every day he brought hope to other mesothelioma patients by sharing his story, by donating time and money, and by spreading the word about mesothelioma and our need to find a cure. Over this past weekend I watched John smile as he told others about traveling, raising his children, being a doting grandfather and husband, and in his spare time, battling to fund mesothelioma research and help pass legislation that would ban asbestos forever in this country. His great passion was contagious and he bestowed it upon the hundreds of people he touched. We have all been robbed of John McNamara, but we will carry the legacy of his passion in our hearts forever.”
The voice that none could silence
The relentless pace and pressure of the symposium began to accumulate. Going full-bore all day Thursday and Friday, John’s massive frame slowly began to weaken. His method of rest? Taking the afternoon off on Friday to go sightseeing. John struggled to get from the front door of the hotel to the elevator, taking baby steps.
Late that afternoon the paralysis set in, and John did not leave his room that evening. A first. Then John missed the group photo that night at dinner. A first.
Bowed, never broken, he made the stand of a giant at his last MARF conference, refusing to let the disease deprive him of so much as a single word. If meso would take him down, it would be in the service of the people who needed him, surrounded by those who loved him, calling out in righteousness and good cheer that this disease must be cured now.
By Sunday night, when John’s plane touched down in Los Angeles, his condition was critical. Rushed to the emergency room at UCLA, he succumbed in the early morning hours.
The speed and finality of John’s passing has left us all stunned, bringing to mind the wise words of another whose beloved husband was similarly felled: “When the end of mesothelioma comes as a shock, you know he has lived a courageous life.”
Better, more fitting words for a titan like John have never been said.
John is survived by his wife T.C., and his three children Nicollette Annie, Shannon Hayley, and Katherine Claire.