Eva man dies after chemical exposure at Decatur plant
By Michael Wetzel
For the Enquirer
Sharona Rusk of Eva said she still can’t believe her husband of 20 years and father of their two children is no longer alive.
Wesley Rusk died Aug. 10, 39 days after being exposed to chemicals at Daikin America Inc., in Decatur, where he had worked for the past two decades.
“It’s been two days, and it’s still hard to understand. I’d be lying if I said I understood it,” Sharona said. “Honestly, I had belief, hope and faith that God would perform a miracle and Wesley would walk out of the hospital.”
She said July 2, Wesley, 45, and two other employees were working outside at Daikin and were exposed to “several chemicals in the area.”
She said a couple of days later, he started having symptoms from the exposure. He went to the emergency room at Huntsville Hospital July 4 and was placed in the intensive care unit.
He was diagnosed with low oxygen levels, tightness in the chest and inflammation in both lungs, she said. July 15 he was transferred to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville.
Sharona said after reviewing a list of possible chemical exposures provided to them by Daikin, doctors at Vanderbilt “are the ones who narrowed it down to sulfur dioxide.”
“When we left Huntsville Hospital and his lungs were very inflamed, I realized how serious it was. I knew it was going to be a long journey,” she said. “The doctors were optimistic since day one.”
Some days Wesley improved, she said, but on others, she saw a slide in his health.
“We had high hopes for lung transplants,” Sharona said. “The doctors told me Monday there was nothing else they could do. His body was tired. I begged him not to go.”
She said their children – Braden, 18, a 2021 graduate of Brewer High, and Breia, 14, a freshman at Brewer High – are devastated by the loss of their father. “It’s been really hard on my kids,” she said. “They’re really struggling with this.”
Sharona, 47, said the family had a trip to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons planned for July to celebrate Braden’s graduation. “It was going to be two weeks of pure fun,” she said. “When Wesley went in the hospital, I delayed the trip until next May. We loved to travel as a family.
“Desoto State Park (northeast of Fort Payne) was our home away from home. We went once or twice a year for the past seven or eight years.”
She said her husband enjoyed visiting historical sites such as Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as Jamestown, Virginia, and Williamsburg, Virginia.
“In January we went snow skiing in Gatlinburg and had a great time. Wesley was being silly and just being himself,” she said. “We were planning another ski trip to Colorado this winter, too. We didn’t take lavish trips. He loved the mountains.”
She called her husband “a jack of all trades.”
“He loved building things, making things,” she said. “We didn’t have to worry about finding a mechanic to work on our cars. He did the work. He worked on the house, dug a pond in the yard.”
She said Wesley enjoyed hunting and fishing with Braden and watching Breia play softball.
Sharona said she remembers meeting Wesley for the first time at a cookout in Cullman County in July 2000. She said they started talking and began dating. Their first date was dinner at Princeton’s Restaurant in Decatur before heading back to her house to watch television and talk.
“We went out on our first date Aug. 9 (2000). He proposed Dec. 9 (2000), and we got married June 9 (2001),” she said. “On Aug. 9 (Monday) the doctors told me they couldn’t do any more for him. I believe he made it through the night because he didn’t want to go on the ninth.”
Wesley was a deacon at Eva Baptist Church. Sharona said he set examples with his Christian faith in God.
“He enjoyed his work. He’d cover for workers who needed to be off at the last minute,” she said. “He would not have wished (the chemical exposure) on anybody but himself. That’s the kind of person he was. He was always helping others. He had a true servant heart.”
Sharona said she has no ill will toward Daikin America.
“Daikin America has been really good to me so far. They visited him in Huntsville Hospital,” she said. “They were in contact with me three or four times a week. When he got moved to Vanderbilt Medical Center, they gave me gift cards and paid for my hotels.”
Threat to lungs
According to the American Lung Association, sulfur dioxide is a gaseous air pollutant composed of sulfur and oxygen. It forms when sulfur-containing fuel such as coal, oil or diesel is burned. Sulfur dioxide also converts in the atmosphere to sulfates.
ALA said the largest sources of sulfur dioxide are electricity generation, industrial boilers and other industrial processes such as petroleum refining and metal processing.
“People who live and work nearby these large sources get the highest exposure to SO2,” the ALA website said.
The range of harmful effects on the lungs, according to the association, is wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and other problems, especially during exercise or physical activity.
“Continued exposure at high levels increases respiratory symptoms and reduces the ability of the lungs to function (and leads to) increased risk of hospital admissions or emergency room visits, especially among children, older adults and people with asthma,” the website said.