Only a few months remain in Frances Harig's life. An elegant woman at 64, with warm, brown eyes, the Baltimore widow is dying of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer attributed to asbestos exposure.
She breathed in that toxic fiber during the 15 years she worked as a secretary in a Maryland asbestos insulation firm. Twenty-two years and two jobs later, after her son was grown and her husband dead, the ravaging cancer emerged.
She has endured long and painful medical treatment, dependency on strong narcotics, like methadone, and the certain knowledge that death is near.
But of those injustices and indignities, she says little.
What disturbs Harig is remembering her "cruel and inhuman" experience before the Maryland Occupational Disease Board.
In her weakened condition, it was an effort to bathe, dress and show up for the three hearings, all partial efforts because of the board's short weekly meetings.
"Honestly, it was incredible," she said as she lay on pillows on a couch where she spends her days. "We were trying to present all this evidence and they quit at 4 o'clock, on the dot."
During her hearings before Dr. James Frenkil, the board chairman, he frequently questioned her about her light smoking habit. It is widely accepted that cigarette smoking has no effect on mesothelioma, and several medical experts testified to that fact in her behalf.
The board did find that asbestos caused Harig's cancer. It awarded her $35 a week, based on her 1955 salary, and then cut it in half, to $17.50 because she smoked.
"It was absolutely idiotic," said Harig.
She appealed the case to the Workmen's Compensation Commission and then to District Court. The court overruled the doctors on the smoking issue and also set her award at $176 a week, based on her salary in 1976, when the disease was discovered.
Frenkil, in a recent interview, said he knew there was no proof for his view in Harig's case, but "we feel smoking is detrimental.
"In my opinion," he said, "smoking does have a relationship to mesothelioma, although there's no documentation on that."
Peter Barth, an expert from the University of Connecticut on the compensation of occupational disease, said the board's decision on Harig was "absolutely criminal. It is shocking.
"I don't know what they're smoking themselves to think that smoking affects mesothelioma. It's not in any of the literature. They might as well have asked if she's female."
Harig, for her part, said she isn't angry for herself, "but for other people with children to support.
"They're board doctors all slanted more toward industry then they are to the victims. As far as saying that 50 percent of my ailment was due to smoking, they were definitely trying to get the insurance companies off the hook."
Frenkil said the charge the board is biased because of its industry connections is a perennial complaint.
"I don't deny there could be conflict of interest . But it's not easy to find people who are honest and sincere to serve.
"We're a fair, impartial board," he added. "There's no advantage for us to do anything wrong."