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Lucky family endures a year of tragedy
Members help each other during stretch of difficult times
Mandy Martin pours herself a soda Friday while mother Karen stands in the doorway inside their Gainesville home. The past year has been trying for the Martins. Father and husband Edward was severely burned in a welding accident and Karen was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

These are harrowing times for the Martin family.

In June, while doing mason work on a building at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, Edward Martin was involved in a chemical explosion. There was a spark. His vest caught fire. And Edward was burned on 40 percent of his body.

His wife, Karen, traveled from Gainesville to stay by his side through the two weeks he spent in a coma and three months recovering in the hospital.

It was a life-threatening accident, but Edward lived.

A few months later, the family was hit with a life-threatening disease.

It started with a cold, Karen says.

"We went to two different doctors, and they just gave cold medicine and nothing was working," she says, sitting next to Edward on the couch of their modest home on Poplar Springs Road. "I woke up one morning and could hardly breathe so, we went to the emergency room."

Three days before Christmas, the diagnosis came back. Lung cancer, stage four. It was caused by asbestos, the doctors told them.

As life shakes this family to its core, it's becoming perfectly clear what stands at their center.

"Without each other we're just nothing," says Mandy, Edward and Karen's 20-year-old daughter. "Right now, at this point, this is what we've got."

She and her sister, 22-year-old Heather, both have put school on hold. Heather is dealing with her own injury, a broken leg that came in October, two weeks after she lost her job and health insurance. Doctors operated to sew her tendons back to her ankle and those bills have been added to the family's stack.

Mandy works about 35 hours each week at a grocery store and adds her wages to Edward's $300 per week in worker's compensation.

The family is making ends meet, but only, they say, because of the generosity of others. They are four months behind on rent and their landlords have not only set the bills aside, but brought them food. They've become like family.

Without their generosity, Karen says, her family would probably be homeless.

"We hate to put that burden on them too, because this is their house; they could actually be making money off of it," Karen says. "But instead they're letting us stay here."

She worries, though, that soon they'll have to start paying back their debt or be evicted.

As a family that's never had to ask for help, doing so now is difficult, they say, especially after being turned down before. When Karen and Edward got back from Camp Lejeune they called every church in town. Only one said they could help, offering to pay their electricity bill.

But the Martins are deeply grateful for that $100. And for their landlord's generosity. And for the mechanic who has fixed Mandy's rusted teal Oldsmobile and pushed off the payments.

"We're pretty lucky, aren't we," Karen says.

Lucky. Despite chemical burns and cancer, bills and a broken down car.

"It could always be worse," Mandy says. "It could have been dad didn't make it, or mom, it's too late. But it's not true. Dad's still here and mom's getting treatment. It's OK if some days are better off than others as long as they're still here. That's all that matters."

Edward is at least a year away from going back to work and doctors tell him doing masonry isn't an option. After 33 years in the profession, he's not sure what the next step will be. But for now, he's focusing on healing.

After the accident, the family could barely recognize Edward. Looking at him now, they say, it's a miracle how well he's healed. His chest and shoulders are still covered in scars, his skin sensitive and prone to severe sun burns. But his face has smoothed, the only signs of the accident a few marks on his ears.

Karen has gone through two weeklong treatments of chemotherapy. She thinks it's working, but it's early and hard to tell, she says.

"You just can't stop," Edward says simply. "You've got to keep going."

So that's what this family will do, with the binding between them growing stronger each day.

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