THERE is some confusion about the cause of the liver disease that has given Fred Kress a short time to live. The 46-year-old handyman and house painter, who lives outside of Baltimore, had had hepatitis C, which causes liver damage, for several years. Doctors at one point suggested that alcohol abuse may have been a contributing factor, which makes no sense, Mr. Kress and his family say, because he was never much of a drinker. The real culprit, he now believes, was chemical: he didn’t wear the right mask when he was painting houses, and when he did his craft projects, making alien masks out of fiberglass resin, he worked in a small, windowless room, ignoring all the warning labels on the supplies he used.
“It said ‘will’ — not ‘can’ — cause liver and kidney damage,” Mr. Kress said. “My liver was completely fried.”
Even before he became sick, however, his life was no bed of roses. He had had a 20-year love-hate relationship with a girlfriend and was living, at the time of his diagnosis, with his widowed mother. His 17-year-old daughter has Rett syndrome, an autismlike disease that has left her unable to speak. And the day last February when his doctors told him he had no more than a year to live, his girlfriend and his best friend hooked up. [...]