The Black Lung: Helping the Victims

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MESA COUNTY, Colo.- Black Lung may seem like a thing of the past, but the deadly coal miners’ disease is surging back, despite regulations created more than 40 years ago to protect them.

While receiving federal benefits for miners can be a long and daunting process, a local company is working to provide the only treatment that has shown to be successful.

Taking a deep breath doesn’t come easy for Dennis Jensen. He began his mining career in 1976 near Price, Utah. After 24 years of mining coal, he was faced with a diagnosis that would change the way he lived and breathed.

“I had x-rays from the government and they said I had it in ’83,” Jensen explained. “That would probably due to being on the long wall for a while and then all the hauling in and the roads were dusty."

Jensen has been living with the Black Lung for more than three decades. It’s an incurable disease that makes quality of life a little more difficult.

During Jensen’s time in the mine, coal particles and dust got into his lungs. His body built scar tissue around those particles that continues to build up, making it more difficult to breathe.

Jensen has heard about the risks of working in a mine, but like so many others, he never thought it would happen to him.

“You’re invincible then,” Jensen said. “Nothing like that is going to get to you but as you get older there are a lot of stupid things you do. I could have protected myself more if I had done things right but I didn't.”

Jensen said he sometimes wore a respirator, but there was a lot of water that plugged it up.

Research shows that more miners are being diagnosed with the Black Lung. According to the United States Department of Labor, in 2016 alone, nearly 700 thousand miners were receiving federal medical benefits. More than 7 thousand of them are here in Colorado.

However, those numbers only reflect the miners who have been approved, not those still waiting to receive a Black Lung card.

“Your family physician I find, is very careful in not using the word black lung,” explained Anita O’Neil.

She’s a benefits counselor with NOWCAP. O’Neil says that she encourages all miners to get a medical screening every two years.

“Sometimes the company will say he does have the disease and we are going to pay,” O’Neil said. “Others, we go to a hearing to prove they have the disease.”

A coal miner who has the incurable disease and has received their Black Lung card through the federal program is entitled to in-home nursing, and pulmonary rehabilitation at a facility.

"It increases their endurance, and it increases their strength,” explained Kevin Yates, a Black Lung specialist. “It teaches patients how to deal with shortness of breath and that is through breathing retraining."

Treatments include exercise, education, and a lot of walking. While pulmonary rehab is the leading treatment for the disease, a lot of miners don’t have access to an actual facility.

"In the western rural part of the United States where there is a lot of distance to facilities, these men and women are sick and a lot of the time cannot drive to a pulmonary rehab,” explained Jolene Walker with Critical Nurse Staffing.

This means that if they cannot drive to a facility, they are not compensated for the rehab. Critical Nurse Staffing says that leaves many who need the treatment, unable to receive it.

Jensen was one of those miners, until CNS began taking pulmonary rehab to his own home.

“We’re working with the Federal Black Lung service to try and make this available and reimbursable to all rural miners,” Walker said.

The company travels to various patients homes, to provide one-on-one treatment. It allows them to not only go to the sick patients, but patients are then able to incorporate medical treatment into their daily routine.

While in-home pulmonary rehab is not covered by the Federal Black Lung Program, CNS is absorbing the costs to prove it’s a viable resource and treatment. They hope their success encourages other medical companies to provide this as well.

As Black Lung continues to affect more and more miners, those fighting the disease, refuse to give up.

“It’s not easy. If you just want to lie around and do nothing, you're going to die,” Jensen said. “And I'm not ready to die.”