Castlegar and area residents are opening their hearts and wallets to aid a local woman who is stuck in Florida awaiting life-saving cancer treatment.
Jennifer Rodrigues has been forced to stay in Tampa, Florida, awaiting an experimental procedure to rid the cancer from her body — if the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t get in the way.
“We are waiting, hoping that nothing is affected,” she told the Castlegar News from her hotel in Florida.
Rodrigues was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in 2008, a rare cancer that affects one in six million people. After being cancer-free for seven years, she was found to have liver metastasis in 2015 and again in October 2019.
Treatments at Kootenay Lake Hospital’s cancer ward have only helped a little.
“We’ve had to find something else. In our Canadian system, which is wonderful, immunotherapy was what they had to offer,” she says. “So we had to look outside the box.”
Rodrigues learned about a drug therapy being tried at the Moffitt Cancer Centre in Florida.
The trial, run by a company called Delcath, is called percutaneous hepatic perfusion (PHP). It is a regionalized, minimally-invasive approach to cancer treatment currently undergoing Phase II and Phase III clinical testing.
“They isolate your liver, and saturate your liver with a chemo drug, then they filter as much of the chemo as they can out of your blood then return your blood to your body,” she explains. “It’s pretty exciting and fascinating.”
With the support of her oncologist in Vancouver, Rodrigues decided to give the new treatment a try.
Rodrigues, who works as a security screener at the West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar, and her husband Phil, who works for Air Canada, headed down to Florida in March for initial tests. She was scheduled for the procedure April 10.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Airline travel came to a worldwide near-shutdown, and both the U.S. and Canadian governments closed their borders, imposing restrictions on all travellers. Her husband is also part of the massive layoffs announced by Air Canada.
It has put the Rodrigues family in a tough position, both financially and logistically.
“Once you get to Canada you have to self-isolate for 14 days,” she says. “To get back down here for my treatment, we would have had a day or two at home after isolation before we had to leave again, just to self-isolate here again for 14 days.”
Car rentals, hotels and other costs are adding up.
“We decided staying here was the lesser of two evils, financially-speaking,” she says. “Also the added stress of not knowing if the person on the plane next to you has COVID-19.”
They have settled into a motel in Tampa a few blocks from the hospital centre where she’ll get her treatment.
After that, she would have come home for six weeks before getting follow-up tests in Florida. Again, the pandemic has scuttled those plans.
If the worry and wait wasn’t enough, the travel restrictions have added a huge financial burden to the process.
As an experimental (but not-quite-yet approved) procedure, the Rodrigues are on the hook for about $69,000 in medical bills. Added on top of that are the expenses of living in a foreign country while awaiting the treatment.
That’s why the family has set up a Gofundme page to ask the community to help defer the costs. At press time, nearly $9,000 of the $10,000 goal has been reached.
“We were so surprised and shocked, and amazed at how generous people are,” she says. “We are so pleased with the anonymous donors and people we know and don’t know.
“We realize it’s tough for everybody right now. There’s a lot of people out of work and a lot of people struggling. And yet they still find a little bit to give, and we are feeling very blessed that way.”
A lot still remains in doubt: the pandemic may force the hospital clinic itself to shut down the program, the long process of follow-up exams could mean weeks of further waiting away from home.
“That’s been a really stressful part for us,” she says. “They don’t know if or how the pandemic will interfere with their operations. So we go day-to-day, hoping we don’t hear anything that will affect it.
“At that point, we would probably end up coming home, I don’t know. But that would be more cost, we would have to start all over basically.”
But one thing the Rodrigues family doesn’t have to worry about — that their friends and family here in Canada have their back.