by Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, Health and Environmental Science Editor
An unstoppable force collided with an immovable object on July 12, 2021, when community icon Mesha Irizarry learned she had an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow and blood called Acute Myeloblastic Leukemia, or AML. After months of “feeling horrible,” with pain in her bones, joints and rib cage, she sought repeat COVID-19 testing at nearby Southeast Health Center and a complete blood count or CBC.
The COVID test was negative, but the CBC revealed her white blood cell count to be wildly out of range. A normal human white cell count ranges from 3,400 to 9,600 cells per microliter. Her white cell count was over 16,000! The next morning, she underwent bone marrow biopsy conducted by CPMC that confirmed the presence of immature blast cells interfering with the production of normal cells. She was told bluntly she was not a candidate for bone marrow transplant and should prepare for “weeks to live.”
“I wasn’t afraid when I heard the news. In some ways it came as a relief. I had felt horrible for two months, with pain in my chest and ribs, and at least I had found out why.”
A beacon of strength in the Bayview Hunters Point community for 25 years, Mama Mesha resolved she would live to be with her husband Remigio Fraga for his birthday on Oct. 1. A lifetime of service to noble causes as an early pioneer of AIDS services and shelter director for victims of domestic violence, Mesha Irizarry is remembered as the galvanizing force and indomitable voice of the Justice for Idriss Stelley Movement.
Michele Eliana Irizarry was born in the Basque Country in the mountains straddling the border between France and Spain in 1947. Multiracial and fluent in four languages, she graduated from the Université de Bordeaux in France with a bachelor’s in clinical psychology. She was licensed in family law by the Instituet d’Etudes Politiques de Bordeaux from 1966-1969. Both areas of training and expertise would come to serve her well.
The Biblical meaning of the name Mesha is burden, salvation. A female name of Hebrew origin, Mesha means deliverance. The African origin of the name Mesha means Queen.
. . . nine police officers emptied their weapons into him as he stood alone in an evacuated movie theatre . . .
Matt Smith writes in the SF Weekly: “Irizarry has spent her American life working with the downtrodden – substance abusers, the homeless, immigrants, runaways and battered women. She is now manager for the non-profit Emergency Shelter Programs, which operates two domestic violence shelters and a homeless shelter. She has given seminars to police officers on responding to domestic violence, to situations involving drug use and the manifestations of psychological illness.”
Mesha Irizarry worked on the San Francisco General AIDS ward from 1986 to 1995 and as program director for the Shanti Project. From 1997 to 2000 she served as Shelter Director for La Casa de las Madres. Her work included police trainings to reduce excessive force in domestic violence altercations.
“I believe in healing through helping others,” says Mesha Irizarry.
Before Black Lives Matter, there was Justice for Idriss Stelley!
Irizarry is credited with galvanizing a city-wide movement in the aftermath of the execution-style killing of her gifted but troubled young son Idriss Stelley, who suffered from bipolar illness. Stelley was accused of brandishing a bamboo-peeling tool with a 2-inch blade when nine police officers emptied their weapons into him as he stood alone in an evacuated movie theatre on the night of June 13, 2001.
Experts argued there was no reason for the nine officers to have even entered Theatre 14 with Stelley in obvious crisis. They could easily have just waited him out or summoned a mental health expert to talk him down or disabled him with a bean bag round – a 135-feet-per-second non-lethal weapon with knockdown power up to 20 feet away.
Police incident reports, coroners reports and autopsy findings were held for weeks in what experts believed was a “specious attempt to withhold information about the Stelley shooting until it faded from the public mind.” Irizarry waited three weeks for the release of her son’s body that was shrouded in plastic to conceal the devastating damage to his skull and torso. When Idriss Stelley’s confiscated cell phone was finally released, it logged the last call he made in his life was to 911.
Irizarry prevailed in a wrongful death civil suit and was granted a $500,000 settlement she donated to establish the Idriss Stelley Foundation on Third Street and Palou. The settlement was the largest in San Francisco history involving police excessive use of force. Irizarry, with degrees in clinical psychology and family law, claimed the police were not properly trained to deal with mentally ill suspects. The city attorney’s office concurred, saying the city could face much greater liability if a jury agreed the Police Department systematically failed to train its officers.
Life at the intersection of environmental and social injustice
For 25 years, Mesha Irizarry has lived and served in a community nested within the perimeter of a state Superfund site and a system of three federal Superfund sites spawned by the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard along the South Basin shoreline. For 15 years she owned a home located south of the federal Superfund site at Yosemite Slough.
This coastal region of Bayview Hunters Point is called south-central. It is vulnerable to sea level rise and earthquake liquefaction. Save for a smattering of liquor stores and fast food outlets along Third Street, it is a food desert. For many years, Mesha Irizarry noticed a metallic taste in her mouth!
Nature’s pharmacy: The power of herbal medicine and nutrition
Mama Mesha underwent a urinary toxic exposure screening to determine if chemicals in her environment may have induced the highly aggressive AML leukemia that threatened her life. In addition to AML, Irizarry has undergone excision of recurrent basal cell skin cancer.
Both AML and basal cell carcinoma have been induced by exposure to ionizing radiation. Additionally, AML has known risk factors that include age – most people diagnosed with AML are over the age of 65 – and heavy smoking, defined as greater than a pack a day.
She released the findings of her urinary toxicology screen to help her neighbors understand the types of exposures they too may face. The most remarkable thing about her screening is not her body burden of toxic chemicals – cadmium, nickel and vanadium are listed on the state of California Proposition 65 list of dangerous cancer causing chemicals.
The single most outstanding finding on Mama Mesha’s nutrient screen is that all of the elements necessary for a strong body and strong immune system are normal! Iron, selenium, zinc, calcium and magnesium levels are all in normal range.
Mesha Irizarry is a proponent of the healing power of herbal medicine and nutrition and uses alternatives like mushrooms, Centrum Silver vitamin supplements, organic foods and Meals on Wheels to fight back against the ravaging inflammation and free radicals that damage DNA to cause cancer and a host of metabolic, cardiopulmonary and autoimmune diseases.
One of the most toxic “bad actors” detected in her screening is cadmium. Cadmium and platinum are chemicals detected in heavy smokers. Irizarry has not smoked since 2012, but cadmium has a half-life of 30 years.
Platinum is added to tobacco products to reduce carbon monoxide levels. Tungsten is detected in concentrations five times higher than maximum detectable limits. Tungsten is a heavy alloy used in aerospace and defense because it is resistant to corrosion and has the highest melting point and tensile strength of any element.
Cadmium toxicity is a global health problem affecting multiple organ systems.
Like manganese, nickel, copper and vanadium, tungsten is a signature element used in the steel industry. All of these elements are being detected in a similar profile in residents and workers screened by the Hunters Point Biomonitoring Program. Tungsten in toxic concentrations was detected by HP Biomonitoring in a 12-year-old boy whose mother lived in the South Basin region of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
Cadmium toxicity is a global health problem affecting multiple organ systems. Long term exposure to cadmium leads to cancer and organ system toxicity. Cadmium in toxic concentrations causes low back and hip pain, skeletal bone loss and fractures. Central and peripheral nervous system toxicity has been reported.
Animal studies show cadmium can decrease lung capacity and cause pulmonary diseases, like COPD and emphysema. A chelating agent called EDTA increases the urinary elimination of cadmium. Cadmium toxicity is treated using gastrointestinal irrigation and new chelating agents and nanoparticle antidotes.
“Kickin’ cadmium in the ass with good nutrition” may be the best approach. PharmD and PhD researchers from the Babol University of Medical Sciences report the beneficial use of the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E and a demonstrated protective effect against cadmium induced toxicity in experimental animals. When selenium was added to the combination, it reduced the toxic effects of cadmium. Zinc and magnesium reversed cadmium induced renal toxicity.
The detection of both cadmium and copper in toxic concentrations in the urine toxicology screen offers evidence of environmental exposure. Cadmium is added to copper to make a metal alloy more resistant to softening at elevated temperatures. Cadmium copper is used in overhead trolley wire because it is extremely resistant to erosion.
Trolley wire is overhead wire that provides the current for trolleys and electric vehicles. The intersection where Irizarry and her husband Remi have lived for nine years is a major transit station for the T-Third light rail line.
The south-central region of Bayview Hunters Point is the site of numerous emission sources from private industry and transportation and many sensitive receptors including Bayview Park and K.C. Jones playground, Southeast Health Center, MLK Swimming Pool, the Bayview Hunters Point Foundation, 3rd Street Youth Services, Dr. George Davis Senior Center, Gilman Park and playground and residential housing located within feet of the western boundary of a system of three federal Superfund designated properties undergoing deep soil excavations and heavy equipment operations.
What keeps Mama Mesha’s heart beating? Love, good nutrition and in her very own words: “Healing through helping others!”
Watch this video of the Mama Mesha Irizarry Living Garden dedicated by Lisa Ganser of POOR Magazine on Facebook here (https://www.facebook.com/muteado/videos/10227035599700744/?d=n).
SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, PD, founder and principal investigator for the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program, founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at AhimsaPorterSumchaiMD@Comcast.net. Dr. Sumchai is medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, a UCSF and Stanford trained author and researcher, and a member of the UCSF Medical Alumni Association Board of Directors.