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Jenice Armstrong: Family pulls together for ailing mom

FOR THE TALLEY family, news that health-care reform may be passed before Christmas comes at a time when they really need a bit of hope.



family, news that health-care reform may be passed before Christmas comes at a time when they really need a bit of hope.

A year ago, family members were rocked when they learned their mother had been diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer, which meant the disease had spread to other parts of Brenda Wilmore's body. The aggressive chemotherapy she underwent left her drained and too weak to return to her job as an X-ray technician at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, so she took a leave before eventually going on long-term disability. (Her family thought she'd been terminated but the hospital said she wasn't.)

Wilmore attempted to continue her health-care coverage through COBRA, but somehow the $1,100 check she mailed didn't get where it needed to go before a key deadline, her children told me Monday night.

They're not sure how that could have happened. Maybe Wilmore got the due date wrong. After all, she had been hospitalized because of her excruciating pain.

Whatever it was that happened, Wilmore suddenly found herself in the same, distressing position as so many other uninsured Americans with pre-existing health conditions. Because of her cancer diagnosis, she couldn't find an insurer willing to cover her.

The Talleys didn't know where to turn. For weeks Wilmore's cancer went untreated as her health worsened. Wilmore's "thick" figure dwindled down to a size 6. Her kids would call and her phone would just ring - she was too weak to answer.

It's during challenging circumstances like this that family members can turn on each other - unless it brings them closer.

Luckily for Wilmore, it was the latter. Her four 30-something children - Rodney Talley, Roz Downing, Roger Talley and Robin Dove - began pooling their resources and raising money to pay for their mother's care. Her chemotherapy alone costs $2,554 per treatment. Then, there are all the other medical bills from their mother's hospitalization.

Dove, owner of Ground Zero Chestnut Hill Hair Salon, penned a letter that she passed out to her clients, some of whom offered donations. One contributed $1,000. Rodney, chief operating officer for Regional Pulmonary & Sleep Medicine, turned to Facebook to make an appeal. A friend who sold jewelry organized a party and donated the proceeds to Wilmore. On Sunday, Philly-based singer Tamika Patton will perform a benefit concert at The Ark in Manayunk.

"My mom worked hard all of her life," said Roz Downing, a Philadelphia police officer. "We didn't tell her how much it cost. We went behind her back. We did what we could."

Two weeks ago, Wilmore was able to resume chemotherapy. Her bill was paid in cash upfront. Her children returned the following week with a cashier's check and are prepared to do the same thing Tuesday, the next time their mother is scheduled to be treated.

They're hoping Sunday's concert will succeed since their joint bank account will be just about drained by then. The siblings have applied for Medicaid to help pay for some or part of their mother's medical expenses. They've filed an appeal for COBRA coverage and are looking forward to the open-enrollment period for their stepfather's insurance to roll around so their mother can be added onto his group policy.

This will be a lean Christmas - not that they care about that about now. There's not a lot that any of them really want except for their mother to continue getting treatment and for health- care reform to finally pass. Under both the Senate and the House proposals, it would be unlawful for insurers to deny coverage to patients like Wilmore who have pre-existing health conditions.

"We want to keep Team Brenda going because I don't want this to be a dead-end," said Wilmore, who wants to help others who wind up in her situation. "I have my children. But can you imagine those who don't have family?"

Tamika Patton's benefit concert for Brenda Wilmore is from 6-10 p.m. Sunday at The Ark, 3759 Main St., Manayunk. Tickets are $10. Info: 215-760-3211. Tax-deductible donations can be made out to the Art of Worship Academy, 118 Holland Ave., Ardmore, PA 19003.