Friday, August 14, 2009

Reed Hayes: One false step, 41 years of pain

Herald Denver Bureau

Monday, August 10, 2009

July 1967. Graveyard shift at the Atlas uranium mill in Moab, Utah. A light bulb is out on the second level over one of the vats of yellowcake - sludge of concentrated uranium ore.

Reed Hayes eases himself down the walkway, a replacement bulb in hand. But someone on the swing shift forgot to put up a rope to block off the yellowcake tank. Suddenly Hayes falls. He splashes into the tank.

He's a strong swimmer, and he swims out through the sludge. The shift boss tells him to go home, shower, change clothes and get back to work.

A month later, shortly after he left his job, painful rashes break out all over his body, "head to toes." It's an affliction Hayes has carried to his retirement home, a tidy ranch house with an immaculate garden at the western tip of the Paradox Valley.

Hayes' words come slowly, with long pauses between sentences, as he describes dozens of different drugs and tests he's endured over the decades.

"I've got it today. I've got parts of it on my body right now," Hayes says.

He wears a thick, long-sleeved shirt, sunglasses and a hat every time he goes outside to work in his garden and orchard. For some reason, this year, he's been able to grow apricots - 56 of them, to be precise - while many of the Western Slope crops failed.

Atlas was no help to him. The company is defunct. He applied to the government for compensation for sick nuclear workers, but he couldn't get it because the program was for only lung disease. He's applied to another program, and his case has been pending since last fall.

"I think I'm on the back burner, basically," he says.

"I've been in misery, sometimes literally hell, for 41½ years," Hayes says. "My wife has taken me to the emergency room probably seven or eight times. Sometimes it breaks out and gets in my mouth, starts choking me. Sometimes it gets in my eyes. It moves around."

Steroid balms help a bit, along with antihistamines.

"It never does get rid of it. It just calms it down. It's just a Band-Aid," Hayes says. "That's my story."

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