For the last seven years, Don Ananías Ocampo has become well known in Pilsen, pushing his paletero cart along 18th Street.
But last week, the 77-year-old went into the hospital for knee surgery and his days of selling ice cream — his only source of income — likely are over.
“He’s worried, and he’s sad,” said Hilda Burgos, a Pilsen resident, customer and friend.
“He keeps asking me: ‘When will I be able to sell my ice cream again?’ And I really don’t think he will be able to again, because both knees are so damaged from all those years of pushing the heavy cart. I also think he will probably have to have surgery on the other knee once he recovers.”
Burgos and other Pilsen residents have looked after Ocampo for the past several years — helping him find a place to live, driving him to the doctor, inviting him over for family dinners.
Now they have started a GoFundMe effort for Ocampo to make sure he can pay his rent and to help with what they fear will be crippling hospital bills.
“The doctors tried everything to avoid surgery on his knee, like shots, but nothing worked,” Burgos said. “He’s worked so hard when he was younger in factories and restaurants, but he had to stop because of his arthritis. Working as a paletero when he got older only made it worse.”
Ocampo moved to Pilsen from Guerrero, Mexico, almost 35 years ago, Burgos said. That whole time, he had no medical insurance, due to his immigration status.
Then, in January, Illinois became the first state to extend its health coverage to undocumented seniors whose income was below the federal poverty level. Ocampo qualified and since then has seen many doctors who finally are tending to his health care needs.
He has been officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, and recently had surgery on his nose due to skin cancer. He’s visited health clinics seeking help with the arthritis in his knees, which led to his recent surgery, which was determined to be the only option to improve his quality of life.
The surgery was a success, but some other needs — such as rehabilitation, or even a possible move to an assisted-living facility — aren’t covered.
Ocampo remains at the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital, 1740 W. Taylor St., because doctors are concerned about his living situation. He is expected to be released sometime next week.
“We are worried that when he leaves the hospital he is going to have to go back to the small apartment — really it’s just a room near an alley — and how will he be able to do his exercises to properly recover?” said Ben Emmrich, a Pilsen resident who helped organize the GoFundMe. “His bathroom is not accessible to him, really, because of his mobility issues. It’s just a dangerous situation and, quite honestly, it’s not a dignifying situation.”
The proceeds from the GoFundMe will help pay for his $500-per-month rent in the small room he’s been living in for the better part of a year now. If enough money is donated, Emmrich said, they might be able to help pay for a better apartment. They also want to pay a home health care worker to check on him twice a week.
Emmrich set a goal of $12,000, hoping that’s enough to help Ocampo for at least a year. As of Thursday afternoon, they were halfway there.
“He doesn’t need a lot, and he doesn’t ask for anything,” Emmrich said. “He just needs a sustainable, safe and dignified living situation. A ride to a senior center occasionally, health care and engagement.”
Despite the uncertainty, Ocampo — many in the neighborhood call him “Don A” — remains the same as when Emmrich met him two years ago.
“His spirit is unbridled optimism, and it is a really good lesson for all of us,” Emmrich said. “We need to release our own burden and take the Don A approach to life in general. He is just a happy guy.”