A chance at life is $250,000 away Young mother has rare cancer

February 24, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

At 24, Donna Pettrey wants desperately to live and to raise her 2 1/2 -year-old son. But without $250,000 for private treatment or the help of the Navy and Air Force, her chances of beating an aggressive, fatal cancer are diminishing every day.

Mrs. Pettrey is a textbook example of what happens to people without medical insurance, especially because she is a victim of circumstance. Her insurance was canceled without her knowledge, and because she has cancer, she can't get more.

For several weeks, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's staff has been trying to find a path through the bureaucratic thickets that will lead Mrs. Pettrey to Wilfordhall Medical Center, an Air Force teaching hospital in San Antonio that specializes in transplant therapy, including the treatment she needs.

And with the clock ticking, her family in Reisterstown is scrambling frantically to raise money for private care if the government doesn't come through.

Mrs. Pettrey was married to a Navy seaman early in 1991 when pains in her back and legs were diagnosed as a slipped disc. Six months later, however, additional tests revealed malignant tumors on her spine. She underwent surgery and two months of radiation treatment in Albuquerque, N.M., paid for by her husband's insurance through the Navy.

Her illness caused domestic problems, she said, and the couple separated. Mrs. Pettrey returned to her family in Baltimore County in November 1991. The following month, the cancer returned and was diagnosed as multiple myeloma, a fatal blood disease, which Dr. Eric J. Seifter began treating with radiation and chemotherapy.

Shortly afterward, Mrs. Pettrey said, she learned that her husband had used her medical condition to obtain a hardship discharge from the Navy -- and had canceled the medical insurance.

The insurance company that picks up coverage for former service members rejected her because she had a pre-existing condition, Mrs. Pettrey said.

Multiple myeloma normally strikes only people over age 50 and is rare in such a young person, said Dr. Seifter, assistant professor of medicine and oncology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He said the last such case at Hopkins was four years ago.

"At first I was devastated the day they did the biopsy. I prayed for inner peace that day, for the ability to accept the situation," Mrs. Pettrey said. It must have worked, she added, because "when they brought me in the tranquilizer, which they do in that situation, I was asleep."

Her will to live has been strengthened by her son, Tyler, who was 4 months old when she was diagnosed with cancer.

"Tyler is my miracle because I can never have any more children, and I had a hard time getting close to him, knowing I was going to die. But now I believe I'm going to live long enough to see him become whatever he's going to be."

Her original radiation treatment made it impossible for her to get a bone marrow transplant now. Her only chance for survival is a treatment called a peripheral stem cell transplantation, and every passing day increases the odds against her, the specialist said.

Without the treatment, "she has a year or two to live, with chemotherapy. If we have any chance to cure her, it has to be within two or three months," Dr. Seifter said recently.

He is holding the tumors in check with heavy doses of high-powered steroids and three hours of chemotherapy monthly at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

However, Dr. Seifter said, "Every month of conventional treatment makes it more likely that the tumors will become more resistant and her body will become weaker. If she has to wait another six months, she could die during the treatments."

"If I got the treatment, it would be a 90 percent chance for remission and a 50 percent for cure. Those are good odds for what I've got," Mrs. Pettrey said.

Meanwhile, the bills continue to mount as Senator Mikulski's staff tries to get Mrs. Pettrey authorization for treatment at Wilfordhall.

A sympathetic Navy doctor told Mrs. Pettrey last month that she was ineligible for treatment in a civilian hospital at Navy expense, but he suggested that the Secretary of the Navy might be able to order special treatment for her at Wilfordhall because it is a teaching hospital and her case is a medical rarity.

Mrs. Pettrey already had been accepted in August for the special blood treatment at the University of Nebraska, in Omaha, one of the few hospitals in the country that offers it. But the cost, $250,000 with $120,000 up front, has been a nearly insurmountable obstacle, she said.

Her parents and siblings are planning an aggressive campaign, including fund-raisers, raffles of her brother Gary's custom-carved gunstocks and mortgages and bank loans. They have also established a trust fund for contributions at the First National Bank Branch at the Chartley Shopping Center in Reisterstown.

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