Four months ago, Patrick “Butch” Preece and his family were fighting two seemingly insurmountable battles: one with cancer, one with money.
In one of those crushing ironies of life, they won the latter battle – securing Medicaid coverage for a stem-cell transplant – only to find it was too late to win the first one. Butch’s cancer had spread so thoroughly that the surgery, a long shot in the best circumstances, could no longer offer up any hope.
The 48-year-old Preece, whose battle for Medicaid approval was featured in this column in August, died in his native West Virginia on Nov. 26.
“We shared a good Thanksgiving together,” said his daughter, Danelle Blair, “and four days later was when he went.”
He died shortly before his 10th wedding anniversary with Donna Preece.
“It’s hard to believe he’s gone,” she said. “It’s so hard.”
Butch’s illness, and the financial problems that accompanied it, had been a long ordeal for the Preeces. In August, as they waited to hear about the possibility of Medicaid approval, they were nearly out of options; bills they could not pay arrived daily, adding up to thousands of dollars so quickly that Donna Preece lost track of how much money she owed and could not pay. She’d moved into a smaller apartment and tried to save, and the family held fundraisers – car washes, bake sales and the like – and it made but a tiny dent in her obligation.
Butch was not uninsured. He was covered by Medicare, which paid for 80 percent of most expenses. Donna had left her job at Wal-Mart to care for him; now she says she can’t get her former job back until spring. As for the status of her debts, she hasn’t had the time or strength to dig into it for a full assessment just yet.
Butch Preece was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes in April 2011. Disabled with Crohn’s disease, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation in Spokane, but that didn’t work. His cancer was then diagnosed as aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he went through an autologous stem-cell transplant at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle – a procedure in which some of his stem cells were removed while he went through chemo again, and then the cells were returned, with the goal of rebuilding bone marrow.
For a while, that seemed to have worked. Butch returned home following a four-month stay in Seattle, but in May his pain started returning. Meanwhile, bills piled up. In one period of just a few months, Donna Preece gathered up roughly $10,000 in bills she could not pay.
The family’s final scramble unfolded over the summer. Working with officials at Providence Holy Family Hospital, they began looking for ways to possibly pay for a stem-cell transplant from a donor. It was a complicated scenario: the transplant had about a 1-in-5 chance of working, and the federal Medicare guidelines did not cover it. The Preeces applied for coverage under the state-run Medicaid plan, hoping it might cover the operation.
In August, they received good news: Butch had been approved for Medicaid coverage; he was later approved for the transplant. But just two weeks before he was slated to leave for Seattle for the transplant, on Oct. 4, he received the worst news.
“At that point, it had spread so far the transplant would have been no good,” Blair said. “There was nothing else they could do. That same day they signed him up for hospice care and released him from the hospital.”
Butch spent his last days in West Virginia. He’d grown up in Verdunville, a tiny mining town near the slightly less tiny town of Logan, in the southwestern part of the state.
“He reconnected with the church he got baptized in, saw old friends,” Donna said. “He had some good days there.”
The cancer left him in a lot of burning pain, but he tried to joke about it. “He’d say, ‘I have to excuse myself and go put out this campfire,’ ” she said. “I’m just glad I was there when he passed, so he wasn’t alone.”