In the end, cancer won, as it so often does.
Maureen Wall, 60, a homeless Chester County woman whose story of fighting metastatic breast cancer inspired strangers to donate thousands of dollars, died on Thursday in hospice care.
Wall’s husband, Don, 59, a former auto parts salesman who slept in chairs beside his wife’s bed at Chester County Hospital in West Chester throughout her illness, was with her, as always.
“We thought we would beat this, but —,” Don said, crying softly.
Maureen’s cancer, diagnosed in 2016, had spread to her lungs and liver. Sick from chemotherapy drugs, she dreamed of traveling to a Christian medical clinic in Mexico for a cure.
The couple once owned a house in Maryland where they raised two children, now grown. Don was laid off twice, Maureen became ill, and by early 2019, a middle-class couple married for 29 years had fallen into an impoverished, nomadic existence in which they were compelled to live in hospitals and cheap hotels.
Medicaid covered hospital costs. They survived on $350 a month in food stamps, and whatever friends and Chester County churches could give in cash and gas money for Don’s father’s old car, a 2002 Nissan Altima.
Checks and GoFundMe
After a story about the couple appeared in The Inquirer in October, area residents donated more than $10,000 in checks, nearly $12,000 to a GoFundMe site, and still-uncounted sums of cash to the couple.
Spurred by decency, empathy, or the scarred memory of losing a loved one to cancer, readers reacted with a kind of indignant passion.
Explaining his charity, Jim McLaughlin, 77, of Broomall, who sent the Walls $100 last month, said, “Mr. and Mrs. Wall could easily be seen as Everyman and Everywoman because their horrible plight could be suffered by virtually every one of us.”
Katie Gowa, a lawyer in the firm of H. Rosen Law in Center City, was able to get Maureen more than $5,000 in retroactive SSI benefits, which she had been denied.
“I have little patience when people in hard times get tripped up by red tape,” Gowa said Friday after learning of Maureen’s death.
In addition, the Chester County Housing Authority secured an apartment in Exton for the couple earlier this month, and was working to get them furniture. Don said he and Maureen were supposed to move in this weekend. County officials said on Friday that he can remain there for up to two years.
The outpouring of money and support “kind of overwhelmed” the couple, Don said. “These people didn’t even know us, and they did all these things.”
Maureen had ordered a special bed online with the some of the money, Don said. “I guess I’ll just return it now.”
‘A tough cookie’
Adrienne Bearden, a West Chester makeup artist who lost her father to cancer, was so moved by the Walls’ plight that she started the GoFundMe site and visited Maureen in the hospital.
“Maureen was a tough cookie; she was a force, and she fought,” Bearden, 49, said Friday. “And Don didn’t leave her side once. Being a caregiver isn’t easy. He’s the one who’s going to need our prayers now.”
She couldn’t help adding: “I hate cancer. I hate it.”
Don said that he had a sense Maureen was laboring on Thursday. "I got her yogurt, and I said to her, ‘Honey, you still want to fight this, don’t you? You haven’t given up, have you?'
“She said she hadn’t.”
Don said he’s grateful Maureen got the chance recently to see their daughter, Karen, who brought her three children from Northern Virginia and delivered the happy news that she was pregnant once again.
“That’s a blessing,” he said.
What happens next, Don can’t say. Maybe he’ll return to Maryland. “This was so sudden, I haven’t even made funeral arrangements yet,” he said.
“I haven’t been alone for almost 30 years. Now that she’s gone, I’ve lost a big part of me.”