Amanda’s Note: Heather Von St. James reached out to me several months ago, wanting to share her story about how to overcome a long-term, unplanned financial crisis and get back on your feet. Medical bankruptcies are a very real thing, so I gladly allowed her to tell her story.
How do you rebuild your life after nearly losing everything? That’s something I never dreamed I would ever have to face, but at 36 years old, three and a half months after the birth of my only child, we were faced with the very real possibility of that happening.
“My husband and I were on a financially destructive path prior to my illness, but getting my diagnosis forced us to realize what was important, and helped us change our ways.”
I was diagnosed with a rare cancer called malignant pleural mesothelioma. At my age and at this stage of my life, this was a complete and utter shock. I was told that if I did nothing, I wouldn’t live beyond 15 months. My doctor lined out some options for us, but the most radical option was traveling across the country to a strange city and a doctor who specialized in my type of cancer. Without missing a beat my husband said, “Get us to Boston.”
My first thought was not for my baby girl or even my own situation, but “How on Earth do we pay for this?“
I was so concerned about the money, or in this case the lack of money, that I couldn’t think of anything else. My doctor reassured me he would make sure my insurance would cover me no matter where I went, and I just had to trust things would work out.
That was 11 years ago, and I’m happy to say things did work out. I was able to go to Boston with the help of friends and family pitching in to help us through the rough patches. My mother-in-law bought our plane tickets, a group of neighbors took up a collection and it was enough to pay for a hotel for one of the weeks we were there. As time went on we began to recover. Not only physically, but financially as well.
My biggest fear following my diagnosis was not dying, but losing everything – our home, our cars, my career. This is a very real scenario for many people who have a medical emergency they aren’t prepared for.
I vowed to never be put in that position again. Thankfully, we did not lose our home or our vehicles. Our family and friends banded together and held two fundraisers for us – one in my childhood hometown in South Dakota, and one where I make my home now in a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. Those fundraisers took the pressure off our family and helped pay for the many trips to Boston for checkups and follow-up appointments. I ended up having to retire from my $90,000 a year career as a salon owner and stylist and sold my small stake in the business for $8,000. Although it wasn’t much, it was a little extra we could count on to help get through. My husband worked as many hours as he could to help make ends meet. We lived from paycheck to paycheck for a while, but always made it work.
We started planning by sticking money away in savings. Slowly, but surely, it started to grow. My husband and I had a long talk about the future and decided that after I finished treatments he would go back to school and get his degree. It was not easy and took a lot of sacrifice on both our parts, but if we had learned anything through our ordeal, it was that sacrifice usually paid off. He enrolled in school full-time two years after I finished all of my treatments. For the next two years he went to school full-time in the evening, at a cost of $38,000 for tuition, while working full-time driving a steel delivery truck during the day. His days would start at 6:00 in the morning and end at 1:00 a.m. the next day when he finished his schoolwork. It was brutal. My daughter Lily and I rarely saw him because he was so busy with work and school, but we knew it was necessary to better our lives.
He graduated at the top of his class with a 4.2 GPA and never having missed a day of school. He was offered a job in his field before he graduated with full benefits and plenty of room for promotion and movement. Even then we made sacrifices. He started out on the overnight shift, but it also paid a shift differential for working the night shift. At this point in our life, every little bit helped. I’m proud to say his hard work paid off; he’s gotten a couple of really good promotions and has a great schedule. So while the sacrifices were hard to deal with at the time, they more than paid off. We also paid for school as he went to avoid taking on too many student loans, so when he graduated we weren’t saddled with crippling debt.
We started small, and yes, we have made some mistakes along the way, but we are always trying to move forward.
In raising Lily, we have tried to pass our values and understanding of handling money on to her. We don’t shy away from financial discussions with her. She is part of the family and teaching her financial responsibility is up to us.
Lily recently started earning an allowance, and we’ve helped her split it into thirds. One third goes into savings, another third goes to a charity of her choosing, and the last third is hers to keep and spend. She’s taken philanthropy to heart and has used her birthday as an occasion to raise money for The Humane Society because she loves animals. We are trying to teach her responsibility and to help her understand money, but things are vastly different from when I was young. Online purchasing and being able to just click on a screen and instantly have a book, movie or game is nothing I had growing up. There isn’t actual money changing hands either, so purchasing is different. We are teaching her to understand that there still needs to be money available to pay for the items! If the money isn’t there, whatever she wants doesn’t get purchased. We’ve taught her that her savings account is not to spend but to save for the future. We’re trying to instill in her the understanding of basic money management, something my parents were unable to do for me.
Things were different when I was growing up and my husband had a similar experience. He vowed to not make the same financial mistakes his parents made.
My husband and I have learned a lifetime of lessons over the last 11 years. Many would look at what we’ve been through as a tragedy, but it’s quite the opposite. Sometimes it takes a dramatic shift in order to make necessary changes. My husband and I were on a financially destructive path prior to my illness, but getting my diagnosis forced us to realize what was important, and helped us change our ways.
Although I lost my well-paying job in the salon, I’ve found a new calling as a patient advocate and activist. I have a new purpose in life that I would have never had if it weren’t for my illness. Cams wouldn’t have gone back to school and gotten his degree and, in all honesty, I don’t know if we would have even stayed married. My diagnosis stripped us down to the bare necessities and we were forced to work together to make things better. We are more of a team now than we have ever been, and although it hasn’t always been a walk in the park, we know by working toward our common goals — whether it be personal or financial — we are stronger. By involving our daughter in the conversations, we are equipping her to succeed in the future. Is this path right for everyone? Probably not, but it works for us and that’s what matters.
Heather Von St. James lives in Roseville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, with her husband, Cam, and daughter, Lily Rose. Eleven years ago she was diagnosed with mesothelioma shortly after giving birth to her daughter, but now spends her time as an advocate raising awareness and getting asbestos banned in the United States. She’s a fan of gardening, Starbucks and volunteering at Lily’s school. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.