Susan Flashman, who is in charge of day-to-day operations of Washington, D.C., Local 26’s medical equipment exchange program, at a party for the local’s Retired Members Club with fellow retiree Rusty Griffith.

Marilyn Pittore’s husband, Joe, was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in February 2011. He battled the disease for more than two years before passing away in 2013.

Inside the room that contains much of the medical equipment used in Local 26’s program to aid members, retirees and family members.
A wheelchair that is loaned out to Local 26 members, retirees or relatives for use during recovery.
Dick Bissell, president of the Washington, D.C., Local 26 Retired Members Club, stands at the entrance of a storage container used to hold additional equipment for the program..

Joe Pittore had excellent insurance because he was a journeyman wireman and member of Washington, D.C., Local 26. He also had access to Medicare.

Yet, there were times when the Pittores had needs come up that had to be dealt with quickly and additional help was required, especially when it came to medical equipment. Such was the case when Joe went into hospice care.

A program administered by Local 26’s Retired Members Club moved a hospital bed and transport chair into the family home that day.

 “Everything during Joe’s treatment that we needed was there,” Marilyn said. “It was there unconditionally for as long as you needed it. They were so gracious and helpful. They helped us in every way, getting us whatever we needed.”

Marilyn’s involvement with the program didn’t end there. As an IBEW widow, she also secured medical equipment for her brother and mother when they were dealing with serious health issues.

“Medicare does not pay for durable medical equipment,” she said. “These were all items that would have come out of pocket at a time when all three illnesses were very traumatic and very costly.

“It was certainly a big, big help. Even though we have wonderful insurance, it does not pay for everything.”

Susan Flashman, the retiree club’s recording secretary, voluntarily does much of the program’s day-to-day work. She understands where recipients like the Pittore family are coming from.

In 2011, Flashman underwent surgery when a cyst in her brain started to grow and affected her motor skills, forcing her to retire after a nearly 30-year career as a journeyman wireman.

She had been aware of the program in the past and volunteered to help. Accessing equipment for her recovery without worrying how to pay gave her a deeper appreciation for it.

“I’ve been on the other side,” she said. “The equipment makes life so much easier. As long as someone keeps moving and they don’t feel isolated, they will heal.”

That isolation can be even worse during the COVID-19 era. Flashman and others involved are constantly reaching out to those in need of help. The needs are greater since the pandemic started in March, she said.

“They get depressed,” she said. “When that happens, you start feeling isolated and you want to be independent. Anything that gives you more independence is going to help your mental status as well.”

The program dates back to at least the 1950s. Flashman remembers it being run out of a closet at Local 26’s old hall in the District of Columbia, but it really took off when the local moved to a new hall and training center in suburban Lanham, Md., in 2006.

With the extra space, organizers were able to acquire more and larger equipment. Flashman credited Rick Warner, who was the head of the program at the time and is now vice president of the Retired Members Club, for making it a more professional operation.

There’s now enough equipment that some of it is stored in a large shipping container outside the building.

“My goal is to get everything out,” she said. “It doesn’t do any good to be sitting in our room.”

The program is not just for older members either. A modern knee walker – with wheels, hand brakes and a padded seat for resting the knee and keeping the foot elevated – might allow an injured family member to continue working.

Flashman remembers the 4-year-old son of a member who broke one of his legs and was in a near-full body cast. She and the family worked to find a piece of equipment that would allow the boy to travel safely in an automobile.

“We had to find a seat that was specialized and where they could have him lay down and be secure,” she said.

They succeeded, and at no cost to the family. The boy eventually recovered.

Even members and retirees not directly touched by the program play a role. It is funded by their donations. Some donate state-of-the-art equipment that is no longer being used. Others turn over cash that is used to purchase it. The retirees club also sponsors an annual raffle to raise funds.

“This program has long represented what being a part of our union is all about,” Business Manager George Hogan said. “It’s brothers and sisters looking out for each other as they go through difficult times. One of the best parts of my job is hearing from a family about how much it helped when they badly needed it. Many thanks to our retirees club for their work and our members for stepping up and supporting it.”

They won’t find many bigger advocates than Marilyn Pittore, who gets a bit emotional when talking about Flashman and club president Dick Bissell, Flashman’s husband. Shawn Schmitz, Joe and Marilyn’s son, followed his father into the trades and is now a Local 26 member.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful those two are,” she said. “We are so blessed to have them, with their willingness to jump in and do what is needed at any time. They say we didn’t start this program but I tell them, ‘You just perfected it.’

“I’m a very proud union wife and this union is just what we say it is. We take care of one another. We laugh with each other, we cry with each other and we support each other. It gave us a wonderful life.”