Tragic story warns teens of dangers of cigarette smoking
Bearing a resemblance to professional wrestler Steve (Stone Cold) Austin, Rick Stoddard entered the North Harrison High School auditeria Monday afternoon carrying a duffel bag full of the kinds of things that helped kill his wife, Marie.
Rat poison, ammonia, moth balls, acetone, rubbing alcohol, vinegar, paraffin, tar – just a few of the hundreds of ingredients found in cigarettes that, Stoddard said, contributed to Marie’s death. She was 46.
“I never thought of 23 as middle-aged,” said Stoddard, who lives in Massachusetts.
Since Marie’s death, Stoddard has shared his story in a series of emotionally-charged commercials for the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program in hopes of helping people stop smoking and to encourage youth to never start. He has spoken to students in 140 schools.
Stoddard became involved with Indiana’s tobacco prevention efforts and was named an honorary Hoosier by Gov. Frank O’Bannon. Stoddard helped Hoosier teens launch Voice, an anti-smoking youth movement.
On Monday, Stoddard spoke to students at North Harrison, Lanesville and South Central Junior-Senior high schools.
“I’m not a speaker; I’m a carpenter,” he said. “I’m here to share my story. It’s not an easy one to tell.”
Marie, a two-pack-a-day smoker since she was about 13, didn’t know her body was being consumed by cancer until August 1999, when the couple’s son, then 24, found her unconscious.
“That was the first sign that something was wrong,” Stoddard said. “Lung cancer, in the beginning, doesn’t hurt. You don’t even know you have it.”
By that time, Marie Stoddard had 20 lesions on her brain. Doctors fitted her with a mesh mask, with openings for her eyes and mouth, that held her head motionless on a table during radiation treatments.
“It’s a pretty scary thing … shooting radiation to the head,” Stoddard says in one of the commercials.
Marie suffered seizures (including six in one day) that “takes a toll on the body so bad,” said Stoddard.
His wife lost the use of her right arm and hand, which was devastating for an artist and writer like Marie. Eventually she lost the use of her legs. Her husband had to carry her everywhere, including the bathroom.
“Cancer took her writing, her privacy, and eventually it took her life,” Stoddard said.
Before she died, about 5-1/2 months after the diagnosis, the couple celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary by renewing their marriage vows. Marie also received last rites.
“It was not a very good silver wedding anniversary,” said Stoddard.
Stoddard confessed to the students that he had started smoking himself when he was 12. He stole cigarettes from his father and “practiced” how he was going to hold a cigarette as he smoked.
“I’m glad I was able to quit,” he said.
He asked the students to think of their favorite smoker.
“How many of you would think any less of them if they didn’t smoke?” he asked.
Not one hand in the room went up.
Marie continued to smoke – even increasing her habit – after she was diagnosed with cancer, Stoddard said.
“She got so weak that I had to light her cigarettes for her,” he said.
Ironically, the lighter they used had a “happy face” on it.
The Stoddards didn’t have much to smile about during their last months together, what with radiation treatments, then chemotherapy, and all of Marie’s seizures. Stoddard estimated that medical expenses were in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” but, fortunately, he had “really good insurance.”
Rick Stoddard said he tried to find ways to cheer up his wife – one time he cut off his long hair and shaved his head. That did two things, he said: It made him look like Steve (Stone Cold) Austin, and made him think about what the tobacco companies had done to his wife.
“It was funny until she lost her hair,” he said.
“And I won’t tell you what I think about the tobacco companies; it’s not very nice,” he added.
The last day of his wife’s life, Stoddard said, Marie “breathed like a fish out of water.
“Every breath was an effort,” he said.
In one of the commercials, Stoddard says: “She breathed in. She breathed out. Then she didn’t breathe anymore.”
Monday he said, “I watched them put her in a body bag and roll her out of my home and out of my life forever.”
The Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation organization says 27 percent of Hoosier adults smoke, giving the state the fourth highest smoking rate in the United States. The organization says 32 percent of high school students regularly smoke; the national average is 28 percent.
Annually, 430,000 people die in the United States from smoking, Stoddard said.
“If potato chips killed 430,000, would you still eat potato chips?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”
Stoddard criticized certain magazines for their placement of cigarette advertisements and the “good life” depicted in those ads.
“I can’t find a single woman (in these ads) with a trachea hole who’s wearing a wig because her hair fell out,” Stoddard said.
Ultimately, the decision whether to smoke is the individual’s, Stoddard said, but he believes that their decision can have an impact on tobacco companies.
“If you guys don’t smoke, they’re going to go out of business,” he said.
Jennifer Riley, the coordinator of the Harrison County Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Coalition, said Stoddard delivers “an important message” as he talks to teens about the dangers of smoking and the manipulative marketing practices that tobacco companies use to addict new smokers.
Stoddard encouraged students who smoke but want to quit to talk with a teacher or another trusted adult.
“Life is about making good and bad decisions,” he said.
An example of a “bad” decision is concluding that a different make of vehicle should have been purchased.
“You can trade it in later,” Stoddard said. “You can’t trade in emphysema.”