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Family faces cancer without insurance

When Greg Wilwert won a $100 gift certificate for new glasses from Cottage Grove Eyecare Clinic at a Chamber of Commerce networking event, it seemed it was his lucky day.

At the time, though, he had no idea how lucky he was.

It was Dr. Trent Cole who during his eye exam in May urged Greg to go get a physical -- which ultimately led to a diagnosis of a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Cole was concerned because he had spotted broken blood vessels -- typically a symptom of high blood pressure, Greg said.

Greg went to HealthPartners Clinic the next day. The doctor there suspected a liver infection and sent him on to Regions Hospital. But a CT scan at Regions revealed that Greg had two tumors -- one wrapped around the right side of his spinal cord and one wrapped around a kidney.

Wilwert had been experiencing pain and weight gain, but he thought it was just due to an old back injury and inactivity.

"(He's a) 51-year-old man who still likes to drink beer coming off the winter," his wife, Sherry Wilwert said, explaining their lack of suspicion that anything was wrong. "We owe Dr. Cole his life."

Doctors estimated he has had the tumors for anywhere from six months to a year, he said.

Greg's tumors are inoperable because of where they're located, but doctors are hoping to get rid of them using aggressive chemotherapy, Sherry said.

An expensive diagnosis, without insurance

Greg, who in March joined his wife Sherry in the real-estate business, had been self-employed in remodeling for more than 25 years. He shut down his remodeling company last fall and changed careers because of his back pain.

Because he'd always worked for himself, he wasn't eligible for a group health insurance plan. Though he'd carried insurance until 2007, when his insurer dropped Minnesota clients, he said he couldn't see paying $600 per month for a plan with a deductible of $10,000 -- the best available to him at the time.

"I was 49 years old and I was healthy and I didn't have any problems," he said. Sherry is already covered by the Veterans Administration, so he figured he'd just wait until he was old enough to get insurance through the American Association of Retired People, he said.

The family was able to secure some high-deductible, high-premium insurance that will help them cover the next round of chemotherapy, but their doctor estimated when the first round is complete, they will have amassed between $450,000 and $500,000 in medical bills.

"They knew we didn't have insurance, but (his healthcare providers) re-assured us heavily that they would do their best," he said.

They are waiting until after a benefit planned in October to work out a repayment plan with the hospital.

"They're going to want a minimum," Sherry said. "If they tell me, Sherry, we need $2,000 a month, are we going to be able to do that? No."

If that's the case, they might have to divorce so that Greg can file medical bankruptcy. They're hoping it doesn't come to that, they said. They're doing all they can to save money from downgrading their cell phones to packing lunches to avoiding use of the air conditioner.

"We're real frugal people," Sherry said. "I'm not making the money Realtors used to make five years ago, but I'm holding my own."

An ongoing challenge

Since early June, Greg has undergone chemotherapy every three weeks, which keeps him resting at home most of the time.

"I get five days a month that I feel pretty good," between treatments, he said.

The side-effects of the aggressive chemotherapy treatment is similar to a severe flu, he said -- all your muscles and joints hurt.

The cancer should go into remission for two or three years after the first round of treatments, Sherry said, but it is likely it will return and he will have to undergo chemotherapy again -- and possibly a bone marrow transplant.

He tries to take walks to keep his strength up, even if for only a block, he said.

"They said keep your strength up," he said. "That's the biggest thing ... because they're taking your immune system and basically crashing your immune system."

How to help

A benefit fundraiser to help pay for Greg Wilwert's medical costs will be held from 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Oct. 2, at the Cottage Grove VFW Red Barn, at 9260 E. Point Douglas Road.

The event will include food provided by Broadway Bar and Grill, Tinucci's and LaCucaracha's, a silent auction, a raffle, a bake sale and live music by Gilman's Crossing from 8 p.m. to midnight.

Tickets are $10 for dinner and silent auction, $5 after 8 p.m. For more information e-mail, or search for Greg Wilwert Cancer Benefit on Facebook.

Monetary donations can be sent to Merchants Bank, Greg Wilwert Cancer Fund, 8711 East Point Douglas Road, Cottage Grove, MN 55016.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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