Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Downwinders: Gloria's story

The Downwinders: Gloria's story

One of a series

Terrie McArthur, Desert Valley Times • July 21, 2008

In 1989 Mabel Mitchell published a little book called Gloria. It tells of one woman’s struggle with nuclear fallout. We have been given permission to pass this story along.

Many of you knew her or know of her. Many of you are related to her, went to school with her, laughed and cried with her.

Gloria Leavitt Gregerson was born in Bunkerville in 1941. In 1983, her body lay in a chapel in Bunkerville after a five-year battle with acute myelogenous leukemia. That was the last of many battles with disease she waged.

Gloria was a downwinder. She eventually became internationally known for her story of "Downwind Agony" and her speech before three-quarters of a million people in New York’s Central Park to protest nuclear testing. She appeared in documentaries in the United States, England and Japan and became a spokesperson for more than a thousand plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the federal government.

The thread that runs through Gloria’s story is one of persistence, kindness, courage and pain. And she would need all her courage to the weather the storm brought on by that bright mushroom cloud that "became a backdrop to her life."

In one interview she told a news reporter, "It was brighter than noon-day sun, breathtakingly beautiful. They would let us out of class to watch the cloud come up behind the hills across the river from our school."

This is what I hear over and over again as I question oldtimers about the fallout: "They let us out to watch the blast."

Pain was part of Gloria’s life from the time she was a young girl. At one point she remembered that she must have been in the doctor’s outer room at least six times. This time would be different.

Pain had been her constant companion for weeks. Her lower abdomen had felt like a "tongue of living fire." This time Dr. Conrad told her parents that he suspected she had uterine cancer.

"He must be talking about someone else," Gloria thought. "I can’t have cancer. I’m too young. Only old people have cancer."

Her mother tucked her in that night as if she were a young child instead of a 16-year old in the bloom of her youth. This would be the beginning of a 20-year battle with cancer — one she would eventually lose.

Her medical history reads like a "broken record."

Cancer surgery 1960-1975

1960 major surgery, cancer of female organs

1962 major surgery for cancer

1963 major surgery for cancer

1963 hysterectomy

1965 major surgery for cancer

1967 surgery for cancer

1969, 1970, 1973, 1975 cancer

"This was in addition to the nausea and headaches that plagued her throughout high school."

Through it all Gloria did her best to live a "normal" life. She attended high school, dated, fell in love, and wished for children of her own. But the children were never to be. The damaging effects of radiation cost her that before it took her life.

Gloria’s cousin Tom’s memories of her are that she loved everybody and she loved Bunkerville. And then she loved Jack. They were married after a tumultuous relationship which should have alerted Gloria to what lay ahead. But she adored him.

Following their marriage, Jack joined the Navy and moved to California. Gloria returned to work in Las Vegas.

At one point they began adoption proceedings of a young son. But in the end, Jack divorced her and she not only lost him, she lost her son, David, as well.

What soothed her bitter disappointment and her pain was her music. Born with a talent, she sang and played piano by ear. If she heard it, she could sing it.

Gloria and Larry met in the summer of 1967. Their courtship lasted only about six months. "Larry said he was attracted to Gloria because she was so alive, so beautiful and so concerned about everyone around her."

"‘We had a great courtship, the best kind,’ he said. ‘I courted her and she courted me.’"

They were married January 12, 1968, in Boulder City. Larry went to school and Gloria worked. Larry graduated from optometry school and the Gregersons moved back to Boulder City.

Gloria’s fondest wish was to have a family and have a family she would. Together they went against counsel and adopted four children at once, two girls and two boys who had been abused by their parents and finally put into Child Haven.

It proved to be a challenge that even Larry and Gloria found often overwhelming, but they never gave up on the children. And when they did adopt them, they didn’t have any idea how short Gloria’s stay with them would be.

The Kennedy hearings of 1978 and 1979, at which Gloria testified were related to compensation. In 1980 the government began Congressional hearing on compensation legislation. Field hearings were scheduled in Salt Lake City in April 1981.

This is her testimony:

My name is Gloria Leavitt Gregerson. I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada and was living downwind in Bunkerville, Nevada during all the years of atomic testing.

The first blast came without warning. No one was informed it was going to happen. The flash was so bright it awakened us out of a sound sleep. We lived in an old two-story home, and when the blast hit, it not only broke out several windows, but also made two large cracks full length of the house.

After the first blast, my parents would load all of us still in our pajamas, in the car and drive to the top of a nearby hill. From there we saw the bright flash and then a little later, the mushroom cloud. If my memory serves me correctly, it would take three to four minutes for the sound to reach us. It would follow the river and bounce back and forth between mountain ranges. It felt and sounded like an earthquake.

The radioactive cloud, as it came over, was very distinct. It always had a pinkish-orange tint to it. The cloud reached our valley between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. It would almost always drift over our school yard.

Government officials came to our school to talk in an assembly on several occasions. This was only after several shots had been fired. They always preceded their comments with, "There’s nothing to be alarmed about, nothing to worry about, but…

Their cautions were:

1. Wash your car every day.

2. Wash your clothes at least twice before you wear them.

3. Spray water on trees, lawns, plants and vegetation before touching or walking on them.

4. Don’t drink the local milk. (We had access to no other kind at the time.)

5. Don’t worry about anything; there’s nothing to harm you.

The latter caution they kept emphasizing, but why take the trouble to come all that way and take time to hold an assembly just to tell us there was nothing to worry about?

We were given badges to wear and were monitored numerous times. We were never told the results of those readings, though.

I remember as a young girl playing under the trees shaking the white powdered dust all over me. I thought it was fun. I also remember writing my name in the dust all over cars on numerous occasions.

When I was 16 years old, it was discovered that I had cancer in my female organs. After numerous operations to remove the cancer, I finally had to have a hysterectomy two years after I graduated from high school. I have been unable to have children of my own. In my late 20s and early 30s, I had numerous operations for another type of cancer, squamous cell carcinoma.

I have adopted five children. In October 1978, I received a one-month-old baby boy. Three months later I was unable to care for my family and was hospitalized in January only to find that my blood was so low the doctor said I probably wouldn’t have survived the day without the transfusions they gave me. In February 1979, my doctor referred me to a hematologist and I was diagnosed as having acute myclomonocytic leukemia. My life expectancy was three weeks.

It is horrifying to suddenly have all your hair gone one day and your face nothing but big blistering sores. My skin would tear if I moved quickly or made an awkward move. My temperatures would keep going to highly dangerous levels, and as a result I got frostbite from the ice blankets they used to reduce my fever. My children and my family could hardly recognize me as a result of the many months of chemotherapy. I am in precarious remission now, but don’t know when I’ll have a relapse.

In my opinion, the government’s attitude on the subject of fallout victims and atomic testing is shameful. The pain, horror and suffering brought upon innocent victims and our families are monstrous and yet we are looked upon by some as illiterate, fortune hunters because we have file suit asking for justified compensation for medical bills and termination of atomic testing.

Perhaps you can understand our fear and outrage when we discover that their underground tests are venting and are still spreading radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. It is interesting, too, that they still wait for the wind to blow in our direction before permitting a test.

I have a few questions, I hope you will ponder:

1. What gives the government the right to experiment with my health and the health of my children’s children?

2. Who in the government is responsible for continued testing? What type of cold-blooded men can be in charge of deliberately perpetrating the radioactive atrocity that is still taking place upon American citizens?

3. If the government has spent $175 million studying Nagasaki and Hiroshima, why are they so reluctant to study the fallout victims in our own nation?

I have always thought people who ranted against government bureaucrats were a little crazy and radical and now I find myself asking the same questions they ask. I am not a so-called "bleeding heart liberal." I am and always have been very conservative. I don’t intend to spend what little time I have left in a vindictive "Ban the Bomb" exercise, but I can’t say the same for my children and my husband.

Government officials and scientists in the 1950s were quick and sure to point out that no harm would come from the testing. We know different now, so why is the testing still going on? To what purpose? What more could they possibly learn? If they haven’t learned all they need to know, let them get their answers in some other way tan by endangering the lives of all of us.

Gloria made other appearance and spoke up about nuclear testing because she felt it was her duty to her fellow man.

On March 26, 1983 she succumbed to the effects of that very testing. She died of leukemia — a direct result of the nuclear fallout she played in as a child.

Her legacy to us is to never forget. When our government starts talking about resuming testing again, we must speak out against it. No testing is safe. Underground testing vents and releases into the atmosphere through faults in the earth’s surface.

Surely, we, too, must ask, "How much more do we need to know?" We already know from the two bombs dropped on Japan how devastating nuclear weaponry is. We know what radiation poisoning does.

Gloria’s story is just one of many that we will tell. She was one among many whose lives were poisoned by nuclear testing, whose children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will be touched in ways they may never understand.

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