Two retired Norwood policemen who worked together in the town’s former police station have undergone double lung transplants, one doing so just two months ago.
James Pepin, 62, and Neil Murphy, 59, say they are thankful for their second chance at life. They also say they cannot help but think that working in the station’s flood-prone basement — with air quality issues — led them to suffer idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a relatively rare disease that caused their lungs to fail. Officers had complained of poor air quality in the basement, and asbestos was found on the site after the building was razed in 2001.
Norwood officials say they are glad to hear the men are doing well now. But they say they have no knowledge the retired officers’ health problems might have had anything to do with working in the old station, shuttered after a 1998 flood caused waters to reach 4 feet and forced officers to escape through basement windows.
“I never heard it raised, to the best of my knowledge,” said John J. Carroll, the town’s longtime general manager.
Pepin, who retired as a lieutenant seven years ago and is recuperating from his Jan. 3 surgery, said he believes his condition is related to working in the basement offices on and off for 10 years. But he said he spoke to a lawyer and was told, “you can’t sue the town if you worked for them.”
The Norwood resident said he had been having trouble breathing and was diagnosed in 2011 with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or IPF. One doctor told him that his excess weight would probably keep him off a transplant list and that he was likely to die in two to six years, he said.
But he lost weight, got on a transplant list, and waited for more than a year to have his operation.
Murphy, who as a detective worked for Pepin in the basement, said he has no doubt working in the building caused him to be diagnosed with IPF in 2009.
“Absolutely,” said Murphy, who says he had asked but could not determine whether there were air quality tests done at the station or soil tests after it was demolished. He said he, too, was discouraged by a lawyer about his chances of receiving compensation, since the cause of his disease cannot be determined and the building is gone.
Murphy retired 10 years ago after he learned he needed a pacemaker, but said he realized something more was wrong one day when he couldn’t laugh. “I used to love to laugh,” he said. “One day I went to laugh, and I started gagging and coughing.”
He said his condition worsened and he had to get a mechanical lift to get upstairs to his bedroom. He said that by 2009 it was difficult to even take his son to the movies because he had to drag around his oxygen everywhere he went. His son and daughters were 6, 13, and 16 then.
“I was sitting there waiting to die,” he said.
But Murphy said he was one of the lucky ones, and 26 days after being put on the transplant list, after months of preparation, he got the call and got a new pair of lungs at age 56 in 2011. His donor was an 18-year-old victim of a drive-by shooting. He later met the donor’s mother, who listened with a stethoscope to the breathing of her son’s lungs.
Murphy, originally of Norwood, now of Walpole, is working again, at Gillooly Funeral Home, and picking up painting and other side jobs. He said the bills from his surgery are still coming in and he has the cost of the more than a dozen pills he takes daily. He said he receives social security and retirement pay, but they only go so far.
Pepin said the bills from his operation are just coming in.
Dr. Phillip C. Camp Jr., director of the lung transplant program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who operated on both men, said it’s not possible to say whether working in the former police building contributed to their conditions.
“We wouldn’t rule it out; we just couldn’t say that it is,” Camp said.
He said IPF is increasingly being diagnosed in the Northeast, where weather keeps people inside longer and the buildings are older and more prone to dirt, mold, and other contaminants. Since IPF happens over time, it is difficult to determine a cause, he said.
In a statement, the Norwood Police Department said Chief William G. Brooks III “doesn’t know what caused Officer Murphy’s or Lieutenant Pepin’s lung problems, but he is certainly glad they are doing well now.”
Brooks relayed through a spokesman that he remembered the floods well, but doesn’t recall hearing anything about asbestos and doesn’t know whether air quality tests were done. He says he also worked for a time in the basement offices and has had annual physicals that have not detected any lung disease.
Pepin and Murphy are not the only ones who believe working in the old station led to their respiratory problems. Former sergeant Elaine Kougias, who retired Feb. 14 after 37 years as Norwood’s first female police officer and female sergeant, said she never used to cough until she worked in the basement offices for six months around 1984. Now, she said, she coughs “morning, noon, and night.”
Kougias said her doctors can’t determine a cause or cure. A doctor once recommended she avoid the building, so for a time she would have someone meet her outside with her keys and assignment.
One of the worst of the floods at the station occurred in June 1998, when the building was inundated with 4 feet of water, and Kougias and a few others, including Brooks, went into the basement to try to save computers and paperwork by placing drawers on top of the filing cabinets. They had to climb out the small windows because they found themselves trapped by the water; the basement was not used after that.
In March 2001, the station was relocated to a rented site near Norwood Municipal Airport. A new police and fire station opened on the old site, 137 Nahatan St., in 2003. In a Dec. 13, 2001, article in the Globe, a member of the town’s Permanent Building Committee was reported saying the construction of the new police and fire station was running behind schedule because of a number of factors, including that more asbestos was discovered than had been anticipated. A March 13, 2003, article in the Globe also referred to a dispute with Mello Construction over the cost of the removal of asbestos-laden paint.
Pepin, Murphy, and Kougias said mold was also a problem. The building had been constructed in 1963 on what had been Dunn’s Pond, according to various accounts. “I just think it’s way too coincidental for three of us to have respiratory problems of unknown origins,’’ said Kougias.Jean Lang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org