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Project Access Northwest patient Pam needed care but refused treatment she couldn't afford.
Sitting in the living room of her childhood home, Pam quietly recounts the series of unfortunate events she has experienced in the last couple of decades. She speaks with the measured tone of one who trusts in her faith and knows there will be a way forward… sooner or later, one way or another.
She is a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation Tribe from Nanaimo, BC, whose parents brought her to Seattle in search of a better life. From them, she learned traditional values and a deep sense of obligation to family and community.
Her life has been filled with many blessings and also with many challenges. As a young woman, her husband left her to raise her daughter on her own. Later in life, she nursed each of her parents through life-ending illnesses. Her mom battled cancer and passed away in 2009, and her dad suffered a debilitating stroke and died in 2016. In between, Pam even faced her own battle with breast cancer. Through it all, she has trusted in her faith and the values her parents taught her.
“You just roll up your sleeves and do what needs to be done,” she says. “I was chosen [to care for my parents], I think, right from when I was young.”
But, today, Pam is a caregiver who finds herself in need of care.
In August 2018, as she was driving home from church, Pam was involved in a serious car accident just blocks from her house. A young female driver ran through a stop sign and collided with Pam’s car, causing the airbag to deploy.
“I went in survival mode after the car accident,” she recalls. “I prayed for the girl [who ran the stop sign].”
As for herself, Pam just wanted to get home and try to avoid any expenses she couldn’t cover. The emergency responders wanted her to get immediate medical care, but Pam requested instead that they help her get her car ready to drive home.
“My mind is thinking hospital bill.. ambulance bill, tow bill. And I said I am fine. I live up the street,” she says. “And then I drove the car home. It was survival mode… It was just what I needed to do.”
But Pam did need care.
She had suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident, and that wasn’t the only thing wrong.
“Things weren’t clicking,” Pam says, describing the days following the accident. “I finally went to the doctor, and then they did an MRI. They did X-rays. They did everything. And then when the doctor said I had abnormalities, they wanted me to see an oncologist.”
According to Pam, the stress from the accident — as well as the bottled-up emotions and stress from caring for her ailing parents — had caused a recurrence of her breast cancer. This time it was diagnosed as Stage 4 metastatic cancer.
She needed treatment, but initially, she refused.
“I said I have enough stress in my life,” she recalls. “I am not going to have financial debt.”
Her medical team urged her to put her medical care first and deal with the consequences later.
“But I didn’t want debt,” Pam says. “I said unless you walk in my shoes, you don’t know.
“So I prayed …, ‘Open the way for me to get help for my medical care.’”
At that point, someone on her medical team connected her to Project Access Northwest. Her case was reviewed, and care coordinators worked with her oncology provider to make sure she could receive the care she needed.
Tearfully, Pam recalls the day that her care coordinator Martha told her that her medical care would be covered.
“When I heard, I put my head down on the carpet and [gave thanks] for my miraculous blessings,” she cries. “I never gave up… and I couldn’t believe it when Martha said yes.”
“I told her, ‘I’m not making any appointments. I’m not having any treatment unless I know this is going to be paid for, ‘” explains Pam. “She took charge and got things sent to me.”
For Pam, one of the hardest parts of becoming ill has been losing her independence.
“It’s hard to lose that independence… to lose making $46,000 a year down to [living only on] Disability. And you have to beg for this ... you know, with all the changes they make to the law. Food stamps. Disability bus. And not to have a car… This is very humbling.”
Though she still struggles, Pam has also recently accepted help from neighbors and friends from her church. A ride to the grocery store and an extra hand to help carry heavy bags mean a lot.
“It took me a long time … months … to allow someone to help me,” she says. “It’s very hard.”
Pam shared her story with us because she knows that Project Access Northwest donors and partners need more than statistics to understand the impact their gifts have, and she wants other patients like her to know that they are not alone.
“Put aside your fear. Put aside your shame. It’s ok to lose your independence,” she says. “There are people who care… There are people who listen and can help you out with your financial stability having to do with your medical care.”
“It is a miraculous blessing that the path has opened up for me to receive this care from Project Access Northwest,” she adds.
Pam continues to receive treatment, and she has recently received encouraging results from blood tests — a 50 percent improvement from her prior results!
In addition to the oncology care she receives from Henri Li, MD at The Polyclinic, Pam sees Socia Love-Thurman, MD at the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB).
SIHB, a community health center that specializes in the care of Native people, offers additional financial support to lower Pam’s care costs.
“I do the Western medicine and natural plant medicine,” she explains. “I don’t go to the doctor often because Project Access Northwest doesn’t cover regular doctor bills.”
On days that she feels well enough for visitors, Pam entertains her two very young granddaughters. And she’ll soon be welcoming another grandchild!
She is prayerful, grateful and focused on each moment.
“We don’t know what our destiny is,” she says. “No one is promised the end of the day.”
The Susan G. Komen Foundation estimated an average cost of $22,000 to manage the early stages of breast cancer, whereas stages 3 and 4 of the disease are associated with treatment costs in excess of $120,000. A Medicare analysis revealed a mean $110,000 direct lifetime cost of patients with metastatic breast cancer.