Faces of Cancer: Basin farmworker battles lymphoma

By Andy Perdue, Tri-City HeraldOctober 29, 2011 

MESA -- Nearly a quarter-century ago, Federico Alvarado came to America looking for a better life. Through the years, he has toiled on farms in the Columbia Basin to provide for his family and help his children go to college.

Now, Alvarado, 45, has Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's treatable, but he doesn't have the means to pay for the fight.

Alvarado and his family live in Mesa, where he has worked for Curtis Land & Livestock since the late '80s.

"You won't find a better person," said Brad Curtis, who runs the family farm. "He's a hard worker and a great family person. He's been with us forever."

Alvarado has done just about everything on the farm, from planting to watering to harvesting to operating and fixing equipment.

But as a farmworker, he has neither the insurance nor the money to battle his disease. He is hoping for help through the Washington Health Care Authority, but that is taking too long, and his family is desperate.

"Right now, his medical bills are piling up and piling up," said his daughter Patricia. "Everything is on hold, and we never get an answer."

Alvarado began feeling ill in January, so he went to a clinic in Othello. Doctors there thought it was a virus and tried treating it, but he never got better.

After three months, Curtis encouraged him to see another doctor. But the tests were expensive, and he had to wait for the state to approve paying for it. Finally, in August, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

"It just took so darn long to figure anything out," Curtis said.

This isn't his first bout with lymphoma. It first showed up 19 years ago, and he was able to defeat it with chemotherapy, thanks to a Pasco doctor.

Since then, he has become a U.S. citizen and helped put his daughter Maria through Washington State University. Two more of his children, Lisa and Jos, are attending Columbia Basin College, and daughter Teresa also has gone to CBC.

All but Maria live in Mesa, and she drives from Wenatchee every weekend to help. Because Alvarado is ill, Jos has taken his father's place at the farm while still trying to attend classes.

Alvarado and his wife, Martha, also have a 7-year-old daughter, Angeles, as well as two grandchildren.

He is a proud man who would rather use his meager savings than rely on disability payments from the state, but the treatment he needs is well beyond his means.

Because Alvarado went through chemotherapy 19 years ago for this form of lymphoma, doctors don't want to risk the same treatment for fear of injuring his internal organs, especially his heart.

In fact, nobody is exactly sure what chemo treatment he had nearly two decades ago because it has been difficult to find his medical records.

He has traveled to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and doctors there recommended drawing stem cells before going through any more treatments. They think he will ultimately need a bone marrow transplant. However, that costs $500,000.

Curtis wishes he could have provided medical insurance for Alvarado, but that is difficult, and he does provide housing for Alvarado and his family.

"A guy can only go so far," he wistfully said.

This week, doctors at Kennewick General Hospital recommended a new chemotherapy regimen, a treatment that perhaps will stave off the need for a bone marrow transplant. So far, KGH has held off billing Alvarado for his treatments, hoping his paperwork finally wends its way through the state system.

But bills for medical procedures outside of KGH are stacking up. Patricia Alvarado said they total about $15,000 so far. The family is using the last of its savings to pay $10 here and $15 there just to keep the bills from being turned over for collection.

Patricia works at a grocery store in Mesa, and nearly everyone who stops in asks about her father and whether the family has heard anything from Olympia. So far, the answer has been no.

"Every day, we go to the post office to see if there is an approval letter for him," she said through tears. "We just never get an answer."

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