A Question of Power

Do fields from high power lines cause childhood cancer? Years of research have revealed few solid facts. But Joe Jamail has charged the answer is yes, and HL&P knows it. He's headed to court to prove his case - or to dig into the utility's deep pockets.

"All children go to heaven," reads the legend on Joyce Bicki's wall clock, the only decoration in the barely furnished apartment she has occupied since January. Bicki, 27, is the plaintiff for whom the Jamail case is named, and the only plaintiff who consented to talk about her experiences.

In tones that range from terse to sheepish, the other families cited in the court papers explain that their attorneys have prohibited them from speaking publicly. But Bicki, a single mother and high school dropout whose full-time job is watching her three-year-old son William dying on a fold-out couch, never asked permission. In the dim apartment where she lives with William and his five-year-old brother Jesse, Bicki is a defiant, solitary figure who says she has no contact with any of the other families in her case.

A slight woman with long, brown hair, Bicki has been worrying about William almost his whole life. When he was born in September 1991, Bicki was living with William's father in an Humble trailer park. About six feet overhead directly outside the door perched an electrical transformer and a power line; a set of electric meters stood nearby. She was accustomed to power surges and sudden outages, but she still remembers well the day during her pregnancy that the transformer suddenly exploded, spewing a fizzy green liquid that burned away the grass. HL&P quickly came to clear the mess away, and in any case Bicki soon had other worries. From the age of five months, William was having problems: he didn't like to eat and refused to use his hands.

"He'd use his head or feet instead," Bicki remembers. Doctors labeled him arthritic and later epileptic -- until February 1994, when Bicki rushed William to the hospital with a soaring fever. Ultrasound tests showed his small body speckled with tumors: William had neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system. At best, survival chances with this illness are about 20 percent, but William's case is so severe that Bicki says she has no hope that he'll recover. Today, as a soap opera mutters on the television by his pillow, the white, sticklike boy sleeps all day plugged into a morphine drip. His slippered feet point outward and a pack of Twinkies sits near his arm. He can't eat them, but likes to have them near as a sort of teddy bear.

It wasn't until last year's floods that Bicki began to think William's disease might be linked to anything other than her own bad luck. Bicki had already moved away from William's father in April, soon after he had told her that he wished he had a gun to put William out of his misery. The failed relationship was just the latest in a string of betrayals that seemed to define Bicki's life -- starting, she says, with sexual abuse by family members, continuing with her marriage at 13 to a man she says beat her and into her liaison with William's father.

So when the floods hit the trailer park where William's father -- and all of Bicki's possessions -- still remained, Joyce Bicki was staying at Texas Children's Hospital with her son. The water destroyed everything that Bicki owned, and it was while she was looking dully at insurance photos in the hospital's infusion room that another waiting parent, Melanie Fewell, asked to take a look.

"When Melanie came upon the transformer and the power lines [in the photographs], she said, 'I'm going to give you the number of a lawyer,'" Bicki recalls. Fewell told Bicki that she believed a huge set of transmission lines near her home in Fort Bend County were linked to her own small son's leukemia.

"I just kind of cocked my head and looked at her," says Bicki. But she called the number, which turned out to be the offices of attorney John Tyler. Tyler, carrying a video camera, met Bicki at the hospital a few days later. William's disease had abruptly worsened; he would lose ten pounds in the next three days.

Tyler filmed that agonizing hospital visit, and in subsequent days sent an associate to continue filming, explain the case and interview Bicki further. The associate quizzed Bicki closely and later inspected the barren plot where her trailer had once stood. The lawyer tried to explain the principles of EMFs, Bicki says, but she was too consumed with William to listen.

"When he talked to me, it just went over my head," she says. "My course was cancer, not electricity." The attorney's assurances, and a one-page list of studies that showed an EMF link to cancer, were what convinced Bicki to join the suit. She signed on, with the understanding that she would have no expenses and that her attorneys would earn a portion of any award.

Today, the EMF issue inspires a variety of emotions in her, Bicki says, lighting a cigarette. One feeling by now is familiar: betrayal. She wants HL&P to admit that they knew their power lines were hurting children. She also believes HL&P should site its power lines underground, fiercely -- though wrongly -- insisting that "it's harder for [EMF] to go through the ground than through the air." Bicki clearly has other things to think about than physics and electricity, but there's something unsettling about her remoteness from her own lawsuit. A woman whose main goal in life has been surviving, alone and armed only with a high school equivalency degree, may be just the kind of person most vulnerable to chaotic, incomplete facts about health issues.

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