"In May 2001, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer," says Sheila Wessenberg, 45, whose forthright manner and rapid, joke-peppered speech smacks more of Brooklyn, where she grew up, than the Dallas area, where she now lives with her husband and two children. "That summer, I had a lumpectomy and four doses of chemo. But in September, the cancer had returned."
In October, Wessenberg had a right-side mastectomy and started chemo in March 2002. Then, barely eight weeks later, her husband, Bob, a Lotus programmer, lost his job, and Sheila was told by her oncologist that she had, at best, 18 months to live. "We had wanted for nothing until then," she says. "We were living in a luxury home on a lake, for Pete's sake. Granite countertops, marble everything. Then the cancer. Then this!"
The Wessenbergs went through their portfolio first. Then the kids' bank accounts. Then they sold their artwork, Sheila's jewelry, the coin collection Bob had inherited from his father, the washer and dryer. "Everything," she says, "that wasn't nailed down."
Still on chemo, Wessenberg took a job through a temp agency, doing payroll four hours a week. The family moved. They managed to pay for health insurance out of pocket for six months, until the premiums jumped to $832 a month. Denied Medicaid because they had too many assets (they still owned a car), she was forced to drop out of chemo—and to start panhandling.
"I just couldn't believe my life had come to this," says Wessenberg, who took to walking the streets every weekend with a white pail on which she had written, 'NOT A BUM. I'm a mom. Please HELP.' "But I had to do something. It got to the point where we didn't have enough money for groceries."
The turning point came late one night when she saw an ad for a campaign called Covering the Uninsured, and she immediately logged on to their website, taking the time to type in her own heartrending story. Two weeks went by, then she got a call from a journalist writing a book for the campaign about uninsured Americans. The book, including her story, was later featured in The New York Times. She received her first phone call at 8:00 that morning. "A man said, 'You don't know me, but I just read the story about you in The New York Times, and I want to help you,' " Wessenberg recalls. "I started crying immediately."
The phone has never stopped ringing. "I found out at one point I was talking to the former CEO of a major financial company," she marvels. "He sent us a cashier's check for a phenomenal amount of money. I got $8 from someone in New Jersey. Then a philanthropist in the Beverly Hills area called. One elderly lady sent a dollar in change. It was unbelievable. It was beautiful. It was nuts! I even got a check for $10,000—anonymously."
Wessenberg sent everyone thank-you notes, many of which she designed herself on her computer. "There I was, doing all these thank-yous," she says, "when my girlfriend asked me to do her son's birthday invitations. She loved them, and the next thing I know, a woman my girlfriend works with wanted me to do her wedding invitations. All of a sudden, I've got this little business going. One day, I'm destitute; the next, I have a business of my own"—a company she dubbed So Cool.
"There are no words to express the immense gratitude, the peaceful feeling I now have, and the awe I feel for the incredible people who reached out to me—and for the entire miraculous experience," says Wessenberg, who, with the help of a Dallas-based organization called Bridge Breast Network, is now able to afford the blood work and scans she needs to monitor her health. Despite the fact that she never completed her full course of chemotherapy, her cancer is in remission.
"The fact that I'm still alive and have a roof over my head, I completely attribute to the incredible kindness of the American public and the good feelings it created in me," she says. "Other than my children, it's by far the greatest gift I've ever received."
The Bridge Breast Network links low-income, uninsured women in the Dallas area to diagnostic and treatment services for breast cancer. For more information, call toll-free (877) 258-1396 or check out their website.