With no papers, no insurance, Maria relies on ‘angels’ in cancer fight

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Maria, left, hugs her advocate for health care, Julie Contreras, a pastor of Our Lady of Suyapa Sanctuary, a Methodist church in Waukegan. Maria, 39, is an undocumented immigrant who was born in Mexico and brought to the United States at 16. She has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and is staying at the church while receiving medical care at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Maria thought she had no good options. She could see only two paths left to her, each ending in death.

Nearly a year after she felt severe pain in her lower back and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, Maria needed a bone-marrow transplant to survive.

But she had no money. No health-insurance coverage.

And no papers.

Maria, 39, was born in Mexico and came to this country when she was 16. She has lived in northern Indiana for almost her entire adult life. Until her cancer diagnosis, she had worked with little rest since her third day north of the border, in factories and laundries and offices that needed cleaning.

Her three children were born here and are U.S. citizens. Maria, though, lacks any legal status.

Now, she says the hospital in Indiana where she was being treated told her that she could not get a transplant for lack of a valid Social Security number.

“When you’re illegal, you’re nothing here,” she said. “A person with documents will take your organ if you donate it. But I can’t get one. So then what are we?”

A lawyer in the South Loop told Maria she might be able to plead her case to immigration authorities in a longshot bid for what’s called “humanitarian parole.”

Leer en Español

But a supervisor at the immigration offices in Chicago told the lawyer Maria could just as easily face immediate deportation if she asked for humanitarian parole. Justice Department records show Maria has two orders of removal against her because she was detained while trying to cross the border in 1998 and 2013 after visiting family in Mexico.

So it looked like Maria had two choices:

• Throw herself at the mercy of immigration officials, at the risk of being separated from her children and sent back to a country where she has nothing.

• Or die peacefully with her children here.


“I’m lost,” Maria said in mid-November. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Because she feared being deported, she asked that the Chicago Sun-Times not publish her full name or identify the town where she lived.

“I need to know where to turn,” Maria said last month, adding, “I’m not afraid. For me, God has the last word. I’m at God’s mercy. God doesn’t leave us alone.”

Within weeks, Maria found herself with more help than she ever imagined she could get. She became the latest seriously ill immigrant to get help from Julie Contreras, a minister at a storefront Methodist church in downtown Waukegan.

The church is part of the sanctuary movement, which seeks to provide shelter for immigrants who could get kicked out of the country. Contreras and her husband, Salvador, also have dedicated themselves to guiding undocumented immigrants in dire need of medical treatment.

Maria, left, hugs her health-care advocate, Julie Contreras, the pastor of Our Lady of Suyapa Sanctuary, a Methodist church in Waukegan and part of the sanctuary movement. Maria, 39, is an undocumented immigrant who was born in Mexico and brought to the U

Maria, left, hugs her health-care advocate, Julie Contreras, the pastor of Our Lady of Suyapa Sanctuary, a Methodist church in Waukegan and part of the sanctuary movement. Maria, 39, is an undocumented immigrant who was born in Mexico and brought to the United States at 16. She has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and will stay at the church while receiving medical care. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Maria and Contreras met for the first time on Dec. 6, in the lobby of the professional building at Rush University Medical Center.

Contreras had sent a text message to a doctor she knew at Rush, asking that the hospital on Chicago’s Near West Side give Maria the medical help she critically needed. The doctor told Contreras to bring Maria to the hospital.

At their first meeting, in the bustling lobby of the Rush medical building off Harrison Street, Contreras told Maria she hopes she finally can receive the best possible care in her cancer fight.

She gave Maria a tiny locket containing a mustard seed to wear around her neck. In a Gospel passage, Jesus said a person with faith the size of a mustard seed is capable of moving a mountain.

“Because you’re undocumented, you were not treated appropriately,” Contreras said in Spanish, clutching Maria’s hand a few minutes after they found each other in the lobby.

“I’m really sorry. Now, we will fight. I can see that you’re energetic. I can see that you have the heart of a warrior. God has opened up a little window. You have rights just like everybody who walked in here.”

‘She’s as American as apple pie’

It was on a Christmas Eve that the problems of undocumented immigrants in need of organ transplants came into focus for David Ansell — the doctor who recently agreed to treat Maria.

Ansell is the senior vice president and associate provost for community health equity at Rush. He was at work on Christmas Eve in 2011, doing a weekly shift as a primary-care physician, when a group of mostly Mexican protesters showed up outside the hospital.

Among the protesters were undocumented immigrants in obvious need of transplants. Led by activist ministers Jose Landaverde and Emma Lozano, the protesters had planned to stage a posada, a traditional re-enactment of the pregnant Mary and Joseph looking for a place to find lodging.

“Because I’m Jewish, I had to Wikipedia Las Posadas,” Ansell said.

Now understanding the ritual’s significance, Ansell knew how bad it would look to leave the protesters out in the cold. He told the hospital’s security chief, “We have to let them in.”

Seven years later, Ansell is a prominent advocate for “full and unfettered access” to health care for the undocumented and other people who lack insurance.

In his new book “The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills,” Ansell argues that undocumented workers don’t get back nearly as much as they give to the health care system. The undocumented contribute billions of dollars more to the Medicare Trust Fund than they withdraw each year, he writes, citing a 2016 article from the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

“This is not simply an issue of money,” Ansell writes. “This is a human rights issue. When these noncitizens get a serious illness, they face early death, since they are denied health care.”

The uninsured and noncitizens often donate organs. Yet they are denied transplants in many cases, Ansell said.

By federal law, hospitals must treat anybody who appears for emergency care. It isn’t so for those who show up seeking outpatient treatment.

Ansell said he never says no to anybody who asks to be seen by him. And under hospital policy, the decision whether to provide charity care is based only on income. For example, Rush waives the bills for an uninsured patient with a family of four and an annual income of no more than $73,800, or triple the federal poverty guideline.

“If there’s a patient that needs to be seen, we see them,” Ansell said. “Hopefully, in the end, the books will balance.”

At Rush, he said, no questions are asked about a patient’s country of origin or legal status in the United States.

But the hospital, Ansell said, is among the “relatively few places” that would accept a patient in Maria’s circumstances.

“She’s as American as apple pie,” the doctor said at his office, where he keeps photos and letters from undocumented patients who benefited from transplants at Rush. “She has contributed to this country. She has three American-born kids. She’s as deserving of the best we can provide as any one of your readers.”

A marvelous gift

Official word that Rush had accepted Maria’s application for charity care came on Dec. 12, six days after her first visit to the hospital. Maria didn’t think it was any coincidence that she got the good news on the feast day of Mexico’s patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“Something marvelous happened that filled me with joy,” Maria said that evening, wiping away tears. “The day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, my dearest Mother revealed herself. I asked for her to intercede for me before her son, to forgive me for all I’ve done. And on Dec. 12, we get the call that my application to be treated was accepted. A marvelous gift because my Holy Mother of Guadalupe appeared and made a miracle for me. What else can I ask for? What else can I ask for?”

By then, Maria had moved from Indiana to a windowless room in the back of Contreras’ church in Waukegan. All she has in the room is a dresser and a bunk bed. She frequently sips from bottles of Pedialyte kept on a bedside folding chair.

Maria in her room at Our Lady of Suyapa Sanctuary in Waukegan.| Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Maria in her room at Our Lady of Suyapa Sanctuary in Waukegan.| Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

She will stay at the sanctuary while receiving medical care. Contreras drives her to Rush for all of her appointments.

Maria’s daughters, ages 21 and 18, and her 7-year-old son visit on weekends. Her boyfriend and two brothers in Indiana are helping care for her son, who left her a colored picture of a monster after one trip to Waukegan.

“No one is coming in to this sanctuary to remove her unless she’s a terrorist or a threat to the nation,” Contreras said.

It doesn’t concern her at all, she says, that Maria is the subject of two orders of removal.

“There could be 20,000 removal orders for all I care,” said Contreras, who serves on the national immigration affairs committee of the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens. “God’s law is much more applicable. She’s only guilty of wanting a better life. She’s not a criminal. She’s not the Unabomber. She’s a mother of three American citizen children who have a right to live with their mother in their country, which is the U.S.A.”

Contreras said she finds it “very inappropriate,” even sinful, for a hospital to ask for a Social Security number from a gravely ill patient: “Our priority is not her immigration status. It’s to save her life.”

Contreras’ church is called Our Lady of Suyapa, after the patroness of Honduras. Contreras and her husband are pastors for about 60 families of refugees from the central American country. They have ended up in Waukegan in the last few years. Our Lady of Suyapa is affiliated with Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen.

At an evening church service on Dec. 12, Maria sat before an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as Contreras spoke to the congregation and her husband gently strummed a guitar.

Contreras thanked the Virgin for Rush’s acceptance of Maria’s charity-care application. In leading prayers, Contreras — who grew up in Pilsen and is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants — referred to the morenita (the dark-complexioned apparition of the Virgin Mary) who “crosses the border every day.”

At the sanctuary, Maria shares close quarters with an undocumented Mexican couple who say they were threatened with being deported when police demanded their son cooperate with the investigation of a shooting in Lake County that he knew nothing about.

The sanctuary has no stove, just a microwave and a hot plate with two burners. There are no showers either, so Maria sometimes goes to the Contreras’ house nearby to bathe.

Maria was raised Catholic and considers herself a Catholic.

“But I’m not closed-minded — God appears in all places,” she said. “In this little church, they gave me housing, affection, food. They gave me everything without even knowing me.”

At the Methodist church one afternoon recently, Maria appeared down. She declined Contreras’ offer to share an order of takeout Kung Pao chicken.

“You look tired, mija,” said Contreras, 52, using the Spanish affectionate term for “my daughter.”

“We are here for you. We are the family God gave you.”

Maria insisted she was fine.

“Somebody must be praying hard for me, or God is healing me,” she said. “Because I feel something. It’s good. I like it. But I can’t tell you in words what it is I’m feeling. But I don’t feel bad.”

‘A daughter of God’

Maria was born in Pedernales in the Mexican state of Michoacan. It’s a beautiful place, she says, where the locally grown avocados are known as “green gold.”

Maria’s mother left for the U.S. to work when Maria was a few years old because of “la necesidad,” she said. Maria stayed with her grandmother in Mexico until her mother brought her to California 10 years later.

Maria started working at a laundry to pay back the smuggler who guided her across the border. She ultimately settled in Indiana.

“We got to this country on a Sunday, and I started working on that Tuesday,” she said. “To have furniture, we had to take things like tables and chairs out of garbage bins. It was a very difficult time. But there was work.”

A year after coming to the United States, Maria was married. She later got divorced.

Her two daughters have finished high school. One is now a medical assistant. The other is a hostess at a restaurant and plans to start college in the fall, Maria says.

Maria looks at a drawing by her 7-year-old son. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Maria looks at a drawing by her 7-year-old son. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Maria has returned to Mexico twice — when her grandmother was ill in 1998 and when her grandmother died four years ago. Both times, she got detained at the border and was sent back to Mexico, earning the orders of removal on her record. And both times, she soon managed to cross again without getting caught.

The two encounters with border agents were her only brushes with the law, she said.

“Legally, I’m not a citizen of the country,” Maria said. “But I’m a citizen of this Earth, and I’m a daughter of God. For God, we are all equal. Many are mistaken in how they think — all of us who don’t have papers are paying taxes.”

She said she had never received any welfare benefits. She earned about $29,000 last year working full-time in quality control at a factory and at a part-time job cleaning offices.

“I’ve lived most of my life here, working, paying all the taxes, and I have a totally clean record,” she said. “So why shouldn’t I have the right to treatment if I’ve always been contributing here to the wealth of this country?”

‘My host of little angels’

Maria had to stop working on Jan. 20, when she collapsed while arriving for a shift at the factory and was taken to an emergency room. Doctors told her she had “one of the worst kinds of cancer that there is,” she said.

After failing to get a bone-marrow transplant, she turned to an immigration lawyer, Rosalba Pina, who could find no way to help her get legal status from the government. Pina said an immigration supervisor at the Chicago office told her that, because of the two orders of removal on Maria’s record, the government could put her “on the next plane out of here” if she applied for a humanitarian exception to her status.

“Her options were death either way,” Pina said. “Peaceful death with her family or death in Mexico separated from her family.”

A friend of a friend of Pina led her to Contreras.

In the waiting room outside Ansell’s office at Rush, Contreras filled out the intake forms for Maria. Maria cheerfully answered all the questions for new patients, saying she had no other health problems to report.

“Everything is fine — except that I have cancer,” she said, laughing.

She said she didn’t smoke at all, didn’t drink much and never did drugs.

“No, just these,” Maria said, laughing again as she pulled nine bottles of prescription cancer drugs from her purse.

Less than two weeks after her first time at Rush, on Tuesday, Maria had an appointment with a blood cancer specialist. When Maria’s turn in his office came, Dr. Parameswaran Venugopal stood up a few feet from Maria with his arms crossed. He spoke in a serious and low voice. Contreras translated into Spanish.

Dr. Parameswaran Venugopal talks with Maria and Julie Contreras translates during a visit to Rush University Medical Center. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Dr. Parameswaran Venugopal talks with Maria and Julie Contreras translates during a visit to Rush University Medical Center. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

“Thank you for helping the patient,” Venugopal told Contreras.

“She’s a wonderful person,” Contreras replied. “She feels where she was, because of her immigration status, they did not treat her appropriately. She came here to be treated with dignity and respect.”

“We will take care of that,” Venugopal said.

Turning to Maria, the doctor said, “First, we have to clean up your disease with appropriate treatment. We will make sure you have the right treatment.”

After getting all her records and running more tests, the hospital then could determine if she would be eligible for a transplant, Venugopal said.

As the appointment ended, the doctor said there was no need for Contreras to translate the last thing Maria told him.

“I know ‘gracias,’” he said, smiling.

Maria said she wanted to thank him in his native language. He taught her to say shukriya, Hindi for “thank you,” and she repeated that.

Contreras hugged Maria, who cried.

“She’s happy because now she’s being treated like a human,” Contreras told Venugopal.

Maria is scheduled to be back at Rush for her next appointments soon after Christmas.

Her difficult 2017, she said, turned out great because she met what she calls “my host of little angels.”

“Maybe many people wouldn’t get it but this year has been the best of my life,” Maria said. “I’ve been able to see so much love, so many people I didn’t think I would meet who are with me now.”

The goal for next year is clear: “I’m not looking to get legalized. I’m looking to get cured.”

Maria, left, and Julie Contreras leaving Rush University Medical Center. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Maria, left, and Julie Contreras leaving Rush University Medical Center. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Donations for Our Lady of Suyapa can be sent to LULAC of Lake County, 117 N. Genesee, Waukegan, Ill. 60085


• For immigrant crime victims, police block path to win special visas, June 4, 2017

• ‘Dreamers’ could face choice: Stay, or go with deported parents, April 2, 2017

• Could Trump seek undocumented immigrants’ driver’s licenses here? March 5, 2017

• Doctors gave fake medical opinions to help win citizenship, Feb. 26, 2017

• Deportation takes toll on family left behind in Chicago, Feb. 19, 2017

• In Immigration Court, few criminals, far more minor offenders, Feb. 12, 2017

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