A jeweler, a gypsy and a Dasch of spirit

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2001

By her own account, Gail Dasch is a bit of a gypsy. She's slept under the stars in nearly 50 states. She can sling a beer, drive a taxi and charm snake bones into jewelry.

But this rattlesnake jeweler has a degenerative illness called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She can't lift things like she used to. She gets winded when she walks across a room and simple speaking can be a strain.

"I'm what you call a survivor," said Dasch, a chain-smoker who won't reveal her age. "God'll keep breath in this body as long as I need it. The doctors don't like me saying that, but I can't die if God don't want me to."

Dasch said she's not ready to give up her life. She's traveled almost her whole life, by herself or with her children, she said, because she wanted to see everything from the coasts of Alaska to the tip of Rhode Island - and has.

Though it has been a lifetime of adventure, it hasn't always been easy, she said. She's suffered millions of tiny losses in her travels, but the biggest was the loss of her daughter to cancer in 1995.

"It's not right to see a beautiful young woman like that suffer and die in your arms," she said. "It never gets easier and you never get over it. But you have to keep going."

In 1995 Dasch was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic bronchitis. At the time she was working as a home health care assistant, but found she could no longer lift her patients. She soon found herself out of a job and looking for a way to support herself with limited capabilities and resources.

According to the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Web site, the illness known as "COPD" is degenerative, narrowing the airways due to excessive mucus.

"COPD attacks people at the height of their productive years, disabling them with constant shortness of breath," it said. "It destroys their ability to earn a living, causes frequent use of the health-care system and disrupts the lives of victims and their family members for as long as 20 years before death occurs."

"It's frustrating," Dasch said. "I don't feel disabled. But I can't go mountain climbing like I used to. I can't work like I used to. I can't do a lot of the things like I used to.

"I get short of breath. ... And because of the lack of oxygen by late in the day I can't think straight. I'm not able to focus or stay focused. Sometimes it's like my brain just leaves me."

Dasch sought help through vocational rehabilitation and drew on a talent she attained during her travels - making jewelry. While in the Southwest she met an artist who made a career of creating carvings and jewelry from snake bones, antlers and anything else he could find in the desert. Knowing she was a quick study, Dasch decided to turn her lessons into profit.

With the help of the Small Business Development Center, she learned how to write a business plan, make a budget and run a business, she said. She also earned a vocational rehabilitation grant and raised enough to get her business under way.

Now, she peddles her bony bejeweled beauties in small shops in Auke Bay, downtown and at weekend craft shows.

Though her income is limited, Dasch said she believes she will make a go of the business and one day be able to travel again.

"I'm an agitator," she said. "To some extent I was never quite sure where I wanted to be. I always wanted to climb the mountain just to see what was on the other side. There is so much to see and I want to see it. ... I don't think I'll spend the rest of my life in this tiny apartment."

For more information on Dasch's jewelry, call 790-2729.

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.

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