John, Cecil and Black Lung

[imgbelt img=black-lung-clinic-sign.jpg] The most valuable piece of equipment in a coalminer’s house is the portable oxygen tank.


[imgcontainer left] [img:John-Adkins-and-Grace%2C-young-couple.jpg] John and Grace Adkins, when John was a young miner. Before he got black lung.

Editor’s Note: Late last week federal prosecutors said they were considering criminal charges against coal mining companies that have deliberately violated coal dust rules.  This comes after a series of stories showing a rise in black lung disease in the eastern coalfields appeared in the Charleston Gazette and on National Public Radio. 

We asked West Virginia writer Berry Dotson-Lewis to tell us what black lung meant in the lives of people who live in the Appalachian coalfields. She sent us this story of two of her friends, John Adkins and Cecil Butcher.


Grace Adkins is one of my best friends. When I visit her, she tells me she feels like half a person now since she lost her husband, John. 

The brown recliner chair sits empty in the corner of the living room and a pair of hard-toe work boots are behind the front door, as if John would be coming out of the bedroom any moment to pick up his lunch pail and head off to the mines.

I wish you could have met John Adkins. He made you laugh. He told little stories about hunting, fishing and mining. The way he told them, he usually outwitted all of his buddies. 

He was small-built but strong and tough as nails when I first met him. That strength came from his 30 years of hard labor as a coal miner. He started shoveling coal full-time by the age of 15. 

Grace said that black lung came like a ghost in the middle of the night. There were  little warning signs,  a cough that would not go away and spitting up black phlegm.  As the symptoms worsened, John went to doctors. But there’s no cure for black lung. 

The little coal mining community of Enon, four miles out of Summersville, West Virginia on Rt. 39, watched helplessly as “Big” John’s health spiraled downward.  His strong, wiry body became hollow, a bony frame. He coughed until he bent over double. His appetite was gone and his breathing was labored. 

Grace didn’t feel much like talking. The house felt empty except for the hacking cough.  John still put on a good front when visitors came but he couldn’t hide the pain.  He took breathing pills, he wore an oxygen mask and made sure he had extra tanks on hand. He used a walker to slowly glide the short distance from his recliner to the TV. 

His best friend, Bill McCutcheon, who lived on the hill beside him, also a life-long coalminer, was consumed with worry over John. John and Grace no longer walked the few hundred feet up the steep hill to exchange Christmas gifts or eat supper with Bill and Elsie.

The Girl From Stretchneck Holler.