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A Cure for the Common Cold Warrior

Past and present Rocky Flats workers say their jobs made them sick -- and it's the government's job to make them better.

Janet Brown was on her way home from work one evening when she suddenly lost control of her car. It crashed through a fence and finally came to a stop in a field. The next thing she remembers is lying flat on her back in an ambulance, a female police officer towering over her. "She thought I was drunk," recalls Brown.

But Brown had had nothing to drink that evening. Nor could she give the police officer any coherent reason for the accident. In fact, she had no memory of what had occurred in the seconds before the car went out of control.

Brown was transported to a nearby hospital, where she underwent a series of diagnostic tests. The doctors thought she had suffered a severe epileptic seizure and asked how long she had been afflicted with the disease. Brown, who was then 28, replied that she didn't even know what epilepsy was. Then they asked her how long she had been having seizures. "I said, 'What are you talking about, seizures?'" she remembers. "And they said, 'You just don't get epilepsy out of the blue.'" A few days later, Brown was discharged from the hospital with a prescription for a powerful anti-seizure medication. None of the doctors had been able to figure out how she suddenly developed epilepsy, but they were sure of the diagnosis.

Brown was eager to return to her job at the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant. The year was 1986, and life was good at the nation's nuclear-weapons facilities. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and, determined to end the "Evil Empire" of the Soviet Union, had ordered a huge buildup in the nuclear-weapons program. As a result, Rocky Flats, which manufactured the plutonium pits and other components that went into nuclear bombs, was operating around the clock, hurrying to fill the orders.

Brown, who had transferred from the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory three years earlier, was a gifted machinist whose skills were quickly recognized at Rocky Flats. She was promoted to first foreman and then product engineer for the W-88, the lightweight, sophisticated warhead that is currently deployed on Trident submarines. She flew back and forth to Los Alamos, New Mexico, the nation's premier nuclear-weapons design laboratory, occasionally carrying top-secret documents that had been enclosed in two sealed envelopes.

Meanwhile, the seizures continued, growing in intensity and frequency. Brown had grand mal seizures while she was sleeping and temporal lobe seizures during the day. The grand mal seizures made her arch her back, stiffen her neck and bite the soft tissues of her inner mouth. The temporal lobe seizures were far milder and occurred dozens of times during the day. Similar to blackouts, they lasted only a second or two but had a devastating impact on her short-term memory. Brown grew exhausted, unable to concentrate; she found it difficult to even read a newspaper article. Finally, in 1994, she took a leave of absence from her job. Two years later she submitted to a radical surgical procedure that she hoped would put an end to the seizures: a lobectomy, in which an egg-sized lump of tissue where the seizures were believed to have originated would be excised from her brain.

At the hospital, the doctors doped her up with pain medication, drilled two holes in her forehead and inserted depth electrodes. Then they watched her brain activity for a week, charting the electrical storms that swept through her head. When they had enough information to pinpoint exactly where the seizures were occurring, they wheeled her into a brightly lit surgical suite. "When I awoke, the doctor said he had good news and bad news for me," Brown remembers. "The good news was that the operation had gone well. The bad news was that they had detected another seizure area on the other side of my brain. I said, 'Well, as long as I'm in the hospital, are you going to remove that one, too?' And he said, 'Not if you want to still be a walking, talking human being.'"

Although she was heavily drugged and her head was swaddled in bandages, Brown didn't miss a word the doctor said, and a gray fog of hopelessness swept over her. But Brown, who married at sixteen, gave birth to a son at seventeen and was separated at eighteen, soon recovered her natural optimism. She eventually returned to her home in Westminster with its splendid view of the Rocky Mountains. Her hair grew back, thick and curly, and her face showed no trace of the relentless disease.

But as she continued going from doctor to doctor, taking one medication after another, a radical, almost heretical idea was beginning to take shape in her consciousness: What if the seizures were caused by something she had been exposed to at Rocky Flats?

In both Idaho and Colorado, she had worked not only with plutonium and bomb-grade uranium, but also with a veritable witches' brew of chemicals that included chromium, nickel, trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Through various newspapers articles, Brown learned of other workers in the nuclear-weapons complex who suffered from neurological problems. The ailments defied ready diagnosis but bore an uncanny resemblance to such diseases as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.

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