Neighbor island residents who have cancer, like Nalani Perreira of Maui, have to fly back and forth to Honolulu repeatedly for treatment that may be difficult to get or unavailable where they live.
Getting on a plane is even more of a hardship when you’re nauseated, weak and aching, said Perreira, who helps Native Hawaiian women with cancer get proper treatment through the health care system. Money is usually tight because they’re too sick to work, so they can’t afford a hotel if they have to stay for longer periods.
If they don’t have relatives to stay with, they have to get right back on the plane after they find a ride to the airport, she said.
Then Perreira found out the American Cancer Society Hawaii Pacific was building a Hope Lodge where patients can stay free of charge.
“I was so happy!” she recalled. “It relieves the burden from people of being stressed out over where they’re going to stay and spending money.” The lodge is scheduled to be open by Thanksgiving.
Perreira will share her story and the plight of others battling cancer at the ACS’ fourth annual Hope Gala Honolulu benefit at 5 p.m. May 7 at the Hawaii State Art Museum. She has been a “patient navigator” for 10 years with the Hui No Ke Ola Pono-Native Hawaiian Health Care System, and has seen families go into debt and lose their homes.
“I really see how it takes a toll on people financially,” she said. “I’ve seen it growing up.”
As a girl in the 1980s, she saw her late mother and two aunts make exhausting trips to get help for recurring bouts of cancer.
Cathy Alsup, ACS campaign director, said the new lodge will help alleviate the “huge financial drain” that many cancer patients bear, even if they have temporary disability insurance and medical coverage, she said.
“A lot of times insurance doesn’t cover hotels, car rental, your food, or if you’re going to restaurants,” said Alsup, who’s been fundraising the last five years. An average of 650 cancer patients each year travel from the neighbor islands to Honolulu to see specialists and receive services.
Modeled on the cancer society’s 32 Hope Lodges on the mainland, Hawaii’s three-story building will have 20 rooms equipped with twin beds for patients and their caregivers/companions, she said. The lodge will be at 251 Vineyard Blvd. off Queen Emma Street on a 14,932-square-foot parcel of land donated by the Queen’s Medical Center.
The building will be named the Clarence T.C. Ching Hope Lodge because of a $3.5 million donation from the Ching foundation, she said. The ACS has raised $11.1 million for construction, but needs $800,000 more to complete the project, Alsup said.
“My goal is to have everybody know about it and give even $5 to feel as if they helped build this,” she said.
Each patient and caregiver/companion will have their own private room with a television, and share a communal area, library/resource center, activity room and kitchen. People will be able to cook their own meals according to health needs and taste preferences, and be able to talk story with others struggling with the same problems, she added.
A large garden will be a focal point for patients to sit or walk around, with “really beautiful landscaping, a place they can go and relax,” Alsup said. “It will be awesome when it’s finished.”
Perreira said she was especially happy that the lodge will provide a free shuttle to pick people up from the airport, and even take them to doctor appointments and to the grocery store or other places they need to go. She hates to bother relatives on Oahu to take time off from work to drive her around, so Perreira takes a shuttle bus from the airport to the hospital, but it can’t take her to the grocery store or any other place off route, she said.
Having to pay for a rental car or a taxi just adds to the cost of the trip, when her budget is already strained from being off work since Nov. 30, Perreira added.
Alsup said many cancer patients simply don’t get the treatment they need, even if the ACS can give them occasional airline and hotel vouchers.
“The key” that prompted the cancer society’s drive to build the lodge was a pastor on Kauai. The Rev. Gene Redden wrote a letter to the editor that ran in the Honolulu Advertiser in 2006, imploring the ACS build a Hope Lodge for neighbor island cancer patients, she said.
Redden, who spoke over the phone to the Star-Advertiser from his home in Alaska, said he had to fly to Oahu at least 10 times for chemotherapy and radiation, and “that part of the experience (travel) was almost as bad as the treatment.”
His wife couldn’t afford to travel with him, so his church network arranged for him to stay with an Oahu family on weekdays, and he flew back to Kauai on the weekends for months.
“I didn’t have family support with me, and I physically was feeling bad,” Redden said. “Even the flight back to Kauai, as short as it was, was a hardship. I was sick most of the time. I remember getting off the plane on Kauai and throwing up in the bushes as she’s coming to pick me up, and I got in the car and she was in tears.”
The ACS board saw his letter and met with Redden, whose heart-rending story made his listeners realize that “I didn’t have anything invested besides not wanting to see anyone else go through that,” he said.
Since then Redden and his wife have visited the construction site twice on visits to Hawaii. The first time, “we got pretty emotional just seeing that it was really becoming a reality,” he recalled. “We looked at that (construction site) knowing we had a little part of that and thought, ‘You know, if this makes a difference for other people, it’s all worth it.’”
More details on the May 7 fundraiser are available by calling 432-9135 or by visiting hopegalahonolulu.org.