Cindy Hunter, 54, is a high-energy person who always ate right and exercised regularly. In fact, when she started losing a lot of weight, she thought it was because of her rigorous workouts at the gym.
But instead of getting stronger, Cindy was becoming fatigued more easily. She thought it was menopause, or perhaps the stress of starting a new business operation.
But then the economy tanked and she had no income. “No one had money, everyone was foreclosing. It all just fell apart.”
Until then, she’d always had insurance. “I always took care of myself,” she said. “But then I lost my job and my insurance.”
She knew she needed medical attention, so she did some research and quickly found the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic. She collected the necessary paperwork to verify her income and residency as part of the screening process. “VIM accepted me, thank God.”
When Cindy was examined at VIM Clinic, she was down to about 90 pounds instead of her usual 120. Her nurse practitioner wasted no time referring Cindy to specialists. “I could not believe how fast VIM jumped on everything,” Cindy said. “I am so grateful to them. They saved my life.”Fortunately, specialists in the community support VIM by taking referrals when they can.Oncologist Dr. Paul Swanson took the referral and Dr. Amitabh Kumar did a colonoscopy. Not only was there a 15-centimeter mass obstructing her bowel, there were several more tumors on her liver.
Four weeks after she became a VIM Clinic patient, she got the bad news: she had stage four colon cancer and it had metasticized to her liver.
“When they told me I had cancer, it just changed my whole world,” she said. “I had no signs, no bleeding in my stool, absolutely nothing.”
Dr. Swanson told Cindy that the tumor had probably been growing for a few years. Dr. George Rittersbach performed the colon and bowel resections. A port was put into her chest for bi-monthly chemotherapy treatments at the Robert and Carol Weissman Cancer Center. Cindy stayed at the center for three days during each treatment.
When we spoke to Cindy, she was chipper and energetic, entertaining visitors on a sunny spring day. She joked about having “chemo brain,” because of the forgetfulness she sometimes experiences. She was very pleased that her hair was not going to fall out.
The Best Care
At first, Cindy’s family was mortified when they heard she was at VIM Clinic. “They’re from New York,” she explained. “They hear ‘clinic’ and they don’t understand. They thought the worst.”
A visit to VIM soon took care of their fears. “All they could say was, ‘We cannot believe the quality of care,’” she said. “They met the doctors and saw how the care is in there, and they were just blown away.”
Cindy’s got a tough road ahead, but she’s trying to “pay it forward,” by encouraging friends and family to support VIM Clinic. In fact, one family member asked guests to donate to VIM in lieu of wedding gifts while another raised $500 through a Mary Kay promotion. Her friends have also held a number of local fundraising events.
“Martin County is a very affluent community, there’s no doubt about it,” Cindy said. “But there are people who are down and out and need help. Why should they not be able to be taken care of?”
Her own story is a case in point.
“Things happen to people in life,” she said. “I’ve worked all my life and I’ve never asked for anything. I’ve had great jobs and I’ve made good money. This is the first time I’ve ever asked for help — and it hurt.”
Tears well up in Cindy’s eyes and she has to take a moment to compose herself. Then her feistiness kicks back in.
“But you know what, I had to do it, and I’m here today because of it,” she said. “More people need to appreciate VIM and the wonderful doctors we have in this area who are willing to work pro bono. These doctors need to be applauded.”