Facing yet another fight for her life, Carmen Lopez said she’s embarrassed to admit she needs help.
But she does.
The 32-year-old single mother of 3-year-old Sophia has no job, no car and needs to get to and from the University of Chicago Medical Center to undergo at least three months of treatment for an infection.
Ms. Lopez recently completed more than a year of cancer treatment at the same hospital, getting to and from chemotherapy in a borrowed car, and surviving day-to-day through the emotional and other support of friends, neighbors and her church community.
Ms. Lopez’s fight could be easier if she could seek assistance from agencies that help people facing a medical crisis, or who need heating assistance, or daycare and preschool services. But she can’t.
Ms. Lopez is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, and without a social security number, she doesn’t qualify for such assistance programs, said Xochi Herrera Pannell, her friend and Hispanic Advocate Project founder.
While immigration is a sensitive issue in the U.S., Ms. Lopez is first and foremost a mother who loves her daughter and wants to get well so she can care for the toddler, Ms. Pannell said.
Ms. Pannell is seeking donations to help Ms. Lopez with travel to and from Chicago and with living expenses while she undergoes treatment.
“I know there are good people in the Quad-Cities. I know they have opened their hearts in the past,” Ms. Pannell said. “I am hoping her story will make her immigration status invisible.”
“I don’t want to have to ask for help,” Ms. Lopez said, as translated by Ms. Pannell. “I have to get to the hospital, to be well for her,” she said, gesturing toward her daughter who was across the room hugging a stuffed animal.
Kidnapped by Guatamalan gang
In 2003, Ms. Lopez was 19 and living with her parents in an area of Guatemala prone to violence. She said she was kidnapped by a gang and forced to be a “wife” to one of the members. For six months they held her under threats they would hurt her parents if she escaped.
There’s a long white scar on the right side of her face where a gang member cut her with a machete, and a thick burn scar on her left arm caused by a pot of boiling beans that was thrown at her.
Before 2003, Ms. Lopez’s brother moved from Guatemala to the Quad-Cities to escape the gang violence, and became a legal U.S. resident. While visiting his parents, he helped his sister escape to the U.S., she said.
The Quad-Cities has been her home for 11 years. Ms. Lopez lives in a modest home in Silvis that is sparkling clean and sparsely decorated with just a few photos of Sophia. There is no clutter, and no knickknacks except a nativity set under her Christmas tree.
Instead of focusing on “things” Ms. Lopez focuses on Sophia.
On this day, the toddler danced to music in her head, galloped across the living room with a stuffed duck, laughed easily and ran often into her mother’s arms with a wide smile.
Ms. Lopez said she has worked hard to make sure Sophia is a joyful child.
“I never wanted my daughter to suffer because of all my difficulties and challenges. I have tried to give her the best of me. I want her to get ahead, not to suffer because of this disease,” Ms. Lopez said.
Diagnosed with leukemia
Ms. Lopez was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. A local hospital declined to treat her because of her immigration status, but found a facility willing to provide her medical care and cover a majority of the cost, she said.
For more than a year, Ms. Lopez traveled back and forth from Silvis to the University of Chicago Hospital to undergo chemotherapy, sometimes having daily treatments. She borrowed a car from a neighbor, made every trip alone and drove immediately home to care for Sophia.
Ms. Lopez said when she was able, she would make and sell tamales to pay the bills.
In June, she was told the leukemia was in remission, but she must continue chemotherapy medication, she said.
In early fall, Ms. Lopez started having stomach pains so bad she only would get out of bed to care for Sophia. The University of Chicago diagnosed her with a bacterial infection in her colon, caused by a port site infection she got while battling leukemia.
Ms. Lopez said she’s taking medication to control the stomach pain and must go to Chicago next week to learn when treatment will begin. Right now, she only knows she will have to travel to and from Chicago twice a month for three months.
Ms. Lopez isn’t working, not only for the lack of a social security number but also because of her medical condition. Her brother no longer lives in the Quad-Cities and other than Sophia, she said she has no family here.
She said her church community, neighbors and friends continue to provide her with emotional and other support.
Ms. Lopez said she has, in the past, received assistance from the American Cancer Society and Children’s Therapy Center. A friend held a couple of fundraisers for her earlier this year and she said she’s very thankful for the assistance.
God has given her the strength to push forward, she said. “Then my daughter, of course, helps me survive.”
Ms. Pannell described her friend as a fighter. “She hasn’t given up. Like many Latino women, she has this inner strength. She has touched me, and because of her limited resources. I am reaching out (to the community) because she deserves it.
“Carmen is a beautiful person,” Ms. Pannell said. “There are so many people in need. I work with so many people who need help. But this is about life and death.”
Donations can be made payable to Carmen Lopez, in care of the Hispanic Advocate Project, PO Box 1493, Moline, Ill., 61266. For more information, email Ms. Pannell at email@example.com.
Photos by Todd Mizener