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Obituary of Craig S. Kozicki: Advocate for ban on asbestos and for mesothelioma cure

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2009 - Shelly and Craig Kozicki have been named the 2009 Volunteers of the Year by the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, but only one of them will be on hand to receive the award when it's presented in June in Washington, D.C. That would be Shelly; Craig died of mesothelioma on April 1, at Missouri Baptist Hospital in Town and Country, 11 years after being diagnosed with the illness. He was 53.

Craig Kozicki was one of the longest-term survivors of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. He got the bad news when he visited his doctor for what he believed to be stomach problems.

"Craig went to the doctor because he was looking thinner, but his stomach was getting bigger, and he was having trouble breathing," said Shelly Kozicki, Craig's wife of 28 years. "A few days later, a liver biopsy showed that it was peritoneal mesothelioma."

The doctor gave him about six months to live. But the Kozickis had other ideas.

"Instead of going home and preparing to die," said Mesothelioma Foundation Executive Director Chris Hahn. "Craig and Shelly found their way to one of the few cancer centers that was, at the time, attempting to treat the disease."

They also began their education about mesothelioma and its only cause: asbestos exposure. They learned that asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that separates easily into microscopic threads, has thousands of different, and common, uses. These include concrete, bricks, pipe and ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing and lawn furniture. They also learned that asbestos has long been known to be a cancer-causing agent and is believed to have a latency period of more than 40 years. Approximately 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

Craig, Shelly said, never complained and was never angry that he had contracted this deadly illness, possibly through exposure to asbestos in his home as a child. He was simply determined to do whatever he could to combat it.

In their efforts to keep Craig healthy, both Kozickis became activists.

Over the next 11 years, Hahn said, the Kozickis became "beacons of hope," with Craig pushing the boundaries of mesothelioma treatment through experimental surgeries, chemotherapy cocktails and radiation. And he inspired others to do the same.

The Kozickis joined the Mesothelioma Foundation; and Craig took his show on the road, repeatedly sharing his story as a long-term survivor to inspire other patients to pursue the latest treatments. Simultaneously, Shelly was working to make new treatments possible. She began to knock on legislators' doors, urging the federal government to ban asbestos in the United States, just as it has been banned in dozens of countries, and encouraged legislators to fund research toward a cure.

Working on behalf of her husband and others, Shelly has become the Mesothelioma Foundation's most effective volunteer fundraiser. The first $100,000 she raised funded a federal government researcher, Dr. Mitchell Ho at the National Cancer Institute, of the National Institutes of Health. The grant bears Craig's name.

They also reluctantly filed an asbestos lawsuit that is still pending.

"We didn't even think about a lawsuit until months into our journey," Shelly said. "Our first priory was getting Craig well. He was hesitant about it, but he realized that this was something that we should look into.

"There's not enough money on this planet that will make it OK. I'd much rather make a payment every month and have a healthy husband, than to get a judgment."

For the past 11 years, the Kozickis' lives have been consumed with Craig's illness, but "there was so much more to Craig than his cancer," Shelly said.

Like his humor, his courage, his kind heart and his respect for everyone: Like being the uncle who gave pony rides. Like the man who cheered the loudest at his daughter's basketball and volleyball games. Or like the time he rented a gym and coached a girls' volleyball team to a silver medal in a regional tournament against stronger teams.

"He was more excited about it than the girls; you would have thought they'd won the Olympics," Shelly laughed.

Craig was born and raised in Highland Park, Mich. In 1979, he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from Wayne State University in Detroit. Following college, Craig began his 30-year career as a chemical engineer at Monsanto, remaining with the Monsanto offshoot, Solutia. Despite his dire health prognosis, he was able return to the job that had taken him to three different states. He had lived the past 17 years in St. Charles with Shelly and their daughter, Emily.

When Shelly goes to Washington alone at the end of June, she won't just be picking up a much-deserved award for two; she'll be knocking, again, on the doors of legislators, looking for help to ban asbestos and find a cure for mesothelioma.

"My first priority now is my daughter and son-in-law; my second priority is pushing forward with not only advocacy, but raising more funds for research, because without research," Shelly said, "we are never going to find a cure for this cruel illness."

Over the years, Shelly said, Craig would often sport his favorite T-shirt, the one emblazoned on the back with "Never Quit." He never did.

Mr. Kozicki was preceded in death by his mother, Germaine Kozicki (nee Podlaski).

In addition to his wife, Shelly Kozicki (nee Rousse), and his daughter, Emily, whom he walked down the aisle last December, and his and son-in-law Kyle Steele of St. Louis, Mr. Kozicki is survived by his father, Theodore J. Kozicki Sr., and his brother, Theodore J. Kozicki Jr., both of Hazel Park, Mich.

A private Celebration of Life gathering will be from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (program from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.) on April 18, at the St. Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive, in Forest Park.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions are preferred to Craig's Grant to find a cure for mesothelioma. Send donations to: Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, Craig's Grant, P.O. Box 91840, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93190-1840. Memories and condolences may be shared at www.baue.com .

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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