Downwinders Interviews: LaVerl Snyder and Diana Lee Woosley

Downwinders Diana and LaVerlLaVerl Snyder and her family loved to camp in the mountains and desert close to their home in Ruth, Nevada. She was pregnant with her third child in the summer of 1958, a year when atmospheric tests were at a zenith at the nevada Test Site, and when Cold War tensions with Russia matched the bombing of the West in fury. She recalled one camping trip that changed her life and the life of her fetus, then five months in utero.

I remember seeing lots of clouds. Different clouds. I broke out in a rash, my whole body. Burns and blisters, little ones like water blisters, spread up my arms and on my face, soon my entire body. I was sick a lot, nauseous all the time. They took me to Holy Cross Hospital in Salt Lake City. Nobody knew what it was. [Mrs. Snyder revealed that the doctors finally diagnosed heat exhaustion, sunstroke, and neurosis.] My toenails fell off and some of my fingernails fell off, and I lost a lot of hair. It almost killed me. I thought I was a goner for a while. Diana was born real early, about three weeks early, and only weighed 3.2 pounds. The rashes kept coming back, and more than a year later my teeth were falling out The dentist couldn’t understand it. My gums were perfectly healthy but my teeth were falling out.

Her baby Diana Lee wasn’t quite so lucky: she was born with cancer. “I had my first surgery at six months old. I had a neuroblastoma tumor in my chest, located somewhere between the heart and lungs.” Diana pulled out a file of medical papers dating back to 1959. Her mother had taken her to a hospital in California for surgery and radiation therapy, the only treatment for cancer in the early days, little understood and crudely perfomed. The beam of radiation that enveloped Diana’s chest during therapy was not well focused and she was exposed to 6,000 rads at the tender age of six months.

Back then they didn’t localize the radiation, and that’s why I got a lot more than I needed. It caused damage to my heart and lungs. My right breast didn’t grow, bones, everything on the side where they shot the radiation, and it caused scoliosis and kyphosis [severe deformation of the spine] which curls you like a pretzel.

LaVerl recalled that the treatment’s immediate effects caused her daughter to have “constant vomiting spells from the radiation therapy, and then for years afterward she would have vomiting spells for days at a time until she was throwing up bile.” The horror of Diana Lee Woosley’s early childhood grew in intensity as she matured.

I had rods put in my back to straighten it out. In January 1979 [at 21 years of age] I was diagnosed with heart disease and lung disease. I had congestive heart failure and pulmonary hypertension, and the right lung doesn’t function at all. I’ve had four breast implant surgeries. Then I had to have kyphosis surgery. They said I would die within three years if I didn’t have it, but the fatality rate of the surgery was 85 percent. I had the surgery done for the kyphosis because my spine was crushing my heart and lungs, but the orthopedic doctor who did it said that there was so much radiation damage to my disks that if I didn’t have the surgery done, my back would have collapsed within a year. Before the surgery I was going to try to have a heart and lung transplant but there wasn’t enough room in there.

Diana Lee’s mother described the procedure
We didn’t know until afterwards, but the nurse told us we would have died if we had seen how they did the surgery. They had four posts, with straps around her wrists and ankles, and they had her suspended in mid-air to these posts. The posts moved as the doctors did the surgery. They cut her here and they cut her there. They had to break her whole back. What makes me mad is, I heard on the news and in the papers that Eisenhower knew that these tests could affect people and said it didn’t matter if you could suffer to save the country, to make these tests. And that was bad enough, now these people are trying [through litigation, the Irene Allen et al. v. United States lawsuit] to get money. She could use money so desperately for her medical needs, and to make her life a little easier, and they just won’t come through with five cents. I’m not talking about millions of dollars, I’m just talking about helping. I don’t have enough faith in the government even to vote. I hate it.

Diana Lee’s husband, Joe, is a heavy equipment operator. They married when she was 19.
In the last two or three years we’ve had a lot of marriage problems and I know it’s medical because I’ve been sick and had surgery. He won’t admit that it’s medical but I know that he’s probably tired of me being sick, and I understand that. So we almost got a divorce several times and we’re still having marital problems, and I know that it’s because of my illness. When we first got married, I wasn’t as bad. We used to go camping and I just can’t do that any more. Oh, I am angry. I guess I’ve just learned a lot of coping skills, especially with kids. You can’t just sit around being depressed all the time with kids. That’s what’s gotten me through everything. But I’m bitter, definitely, ’cause all this is because they didn’t warn the people. They didn’t say, “We’re going to do this, if you want to leave you can, if you don’t we don’t know what kind of danger there is.” They just took our freedom of choice right away. If they would have said that, my mom would have taken us right away. My life now, I’m only 30 years old and I have to wear oxygen, be in a wheelchair most of the time, and it affects my time with my kids. When we go anywhere I have to take oxygen and breathing treatments. When they put me in the hospital this last time, the pneumonia was real bad, so they had to put me on high doses of Prednisone, and I got diabetes from that. It may go away when I’m completely off the Prednisone, or it may not. But I could be a lot worse off than I am.
~April 1989
Reno, Nevada

From American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War by Carole Gallagher


Downwinders Interviews: LaVerl Snyder and Diana Lee Woosley — 3 Comments

  1. I was a good friend of Diana’s Woosley in Reno. Can you tell me her her status? The last time she wrote me she said she didn’t expect to leave the hosp again. Is it possible she’s alive

    • I’m sorry to be so late with our reply and also sorry to tell you that almost all the Downwinders’ interviews were done long ago. Diana Woosley’s interview was taken from American Ground Zero: the Secret Nuclear War by Carole Gallagher, and took place in April 1989.

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