Patients arriving for treatment at the Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center are subdued, especially on cold winter mornings.
“They're down, and they're crying, and they say they're scared,” said Joyce Thomas, who has been a patient escort for 20 years.
Jolinda “Joey” Loth is an exception.
At 8 a.m. on a recent day, she walked confidently through the glass doors. Petite and grinning, with bright blue eyes, she doesn't look 50 and she doesn't look scared. She doesn't look like she has a chemotherapy pump in her chest or like she has had radiation treatments every morning, Monday through Friday, for the past six weeks.
Loth was scared in March, when she diagnosed herself with cancer after a Google search. She was scared for the next six months, as she quietly watched the symptoms get worse. After starting a new job selling Medicare supplement insurance about six months before, she was without health insurance for the first time in her life.
Two of her three sons live at home, and 21-year-old Jack has autism. A single mom, Loth didn't have the time or money for treatment.
“I couldn't stop working, because I need to take care of my family,” Loth said. “And I couldn't think about my own health, because I needed to take care of them first.”
About the time Loth realized that her pre-existing condition meant she wouldn't be covered anyway, she couldn't ignore her symptoms any longer.
On Sept. 26, Loth went to OneWorld Community Health Centers. She left with a diagnosis: Stage 3 colon cancer.
Within a week she was back at OneWorld, overwhelmed by a barrage of procedures and bills.
Rosemary Miranda, operations specialist for OneWorld, told her about resources available to help.
Most of Loth's treatments qualify through the Hope Medical Outreach Coalition, a group of Omaha physicians who donate their time and services to those in need. OneWorld also works with the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (ENCAP) to help people apply for one-time aid from The World-Herald's Goodfellows fund.
Loth hesitantly laid out her biggest concern to a caseworker: She'd already missed work, and rent doesn't pay itself. Soon, ENCAP family developer Ruth Matlock called her back. Goodfellows would pay $500 of her rent until the next payday, taking some of the financial stress off in the weeks leading up to treatment.
“These were people I've never met. They heard my story and they wanted to help,” Loth said. “It was a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Goodfellows and ENCAP review each application to make sure every donation is used wisely, from change collected by first-graders to large gifts from endowed family foundations. Every penny goes toward helping the needy. The World-Herald pays all administrative costs.
Recipients must be in real need and have no other resources, according to Nancy Livingston, family developer at ENCAP.
“I've seen the Goodfellows stories every holiday,” Loth said. “And you think of it more toward folks that are homeless. You just don't realize that it's there for the whole community.”
Loth still gets overwhelmed, but these days it's when she looks at the community that's holding her up.
“I can't tell you how incredible everyone has been,” she said. “OneWorld checks on me all the time even though all my treatment is now at Methodist. And I walk in (to Estabrook), and I'm greeted at the door by my first name.”
Joyce Thomas, the greeter, likes to give hugs. Her greeting counterpart, Jon McAlpin, is a cancer survivor. He knows the exhaustion of visiting Estabrook every day for treatment and said Loth carries optimism in with her.
“Where was she when I was looking for a date to the prom?” he joked. “She's always smiling. She's an inspiration, even to me.”
Other patients have begun to ask Loth what she does at Estabrook, and she has to break it to them that she's there for treatment. Loth said no matter the circumstances, treatment — and life beyond that — is possible.
“With everything that's happened in the past five years, there's a lot of people that have lost their health care,” Loth said. “They don't know where to turn, and they don't realize there are organizations like OneWorld and Goodfellows there to help them.”
Loth has finished her first round of chemotherapy and radiation. She'll have surgery in January and another four to six months of chemo after that.
Don't call her condition life-threatening. It's life-changing, she says.
Her sister already is planning an end-of-treatment celebration.
Loth's father died when she was 3 years old, leaving her mother to raise 11 children on her own. Now Loth's five brothers and five sisters are part of her support team, and her mother is her inspiration.
She also gets encouragement from Jack, who continues to love people with a passion despite years of bullying in junior high, she said. She feels Jack is safe exploring the Dundee community.
“It really is home,” Loth said. “It's a small town in a big city. The guys over at Bucky's know my boys' first names.”
The best times are those Jack and Loth have together.
“I try to do as much with him as I can. We get out a lot. His social life is my social life.”
The days aren't as long as they used to be (radiation really zaps her, Loth says), but Jack and Loth are constantly on the move: riding bikes to Bellevue, browsing the farmers market in Aksarben Village in season and singing karaoke at Sullivan's bar on Thursday nights.
“I'm very much at peace with what my diagnosis is, and my prognosis is good,” Loth said. “And even if it was more severe — if I was stage 4 — I have my boys, I have a family that I'm very blessed with. I have friends that are remarkable. I feel like I'm the luckiest woman in the world.”