By ARVILLA PRITCHARD
Special to the OBSERVER
CATTARAUGUS, New York - Yvette Matthews is only 40 years old, but her lungs have pretty much stopped delivering oxygen to a body starved for it.
She desperately needs a double lung transplant, but can't even get placed on the waiting list until her family scrapes together $12,000 to demonstrate their good faith effort to pay for the procedure and for her lengthy convalescent care.
Yvette's dad, John Benson, her sister, Yvonne, and the rest of the family, have been doing everything they can to help. They've rallied 'round for years now, since this is not the first health crisis she's endured, being a leukemia survivor, as well.
During that battle, John donated platelets and Yvonne had stem cells harvested to help Yvette overcome the killer disease.
"She's had it pretty tough for about 12 years now," said John about Yvette, who lived and taught in Dunkirk.
Starting in 1999, when she was first diagnosed with acute leukemia, she's spent much of her time in one hospital after another, beginning with the Roswell Cancer Institute in Buffalo.
Doctors there managed to drive her leukemia into remission, using every weapon at their disposal, including chemo, full-body radiation, and stem-cell transplants.
The family had little time to celebrate. Within months Yvette began feeling some shortness of breath. At first, she took little notice, blaming it on her lingering weakness from the extreme (but, at the time necessary) leukemia treatments.
Her lungs, however, deteriorated rapidly. Her breathing grew shallower, less effective, until she found herself gasping for breath, and finally unable to breathe at all without the aid of a ventilator. The last two years have been pretty much a nightmare, according to John. Gradually, pulmonary specialists at the Cleveland Clinic moved into the lead in dealing with her rapidly advancing lung failure.
Things came to a head two days before New Year's Eve, when Yvette, on a much anticipated hospital break at home with her family for Christmas, suddenly became terribly ill. She was rushed to Roswell in critical condition. Next morning, her heart stopped, but thankfully, was restarted. Doctors at Roswell contacted Cleveland Clinic, where they readied a helicopter to get her. Rapidly worsening weather conditions necessitated dispatching an ambulance instead.
Yvette made it to Cleveland, where she was put back on the ventilator and treated for a near-fatal attack of viral pneumonia. Losing strength steadily, she became much too weak to undergo the additional trauma of a transplant, even had the family managed to gather the money.
Just over two weeks ago, Cleveland transported her to the Select Specialty Hospital in Erie, Pa. "It's a place designed specifically to deal with situations like Yvette's," explained John. "What they do is, they try to wean her off the ventilator and get her strong enough for the surgery."
For John and Yvonne, Yvette's transfer to Erie was a welcome one. They'd been driving the 400-plus mile round-trip to Cleveland every Sunday, just to sit with her for a few hours, fill her in on family happenings and offer some words of love and encouragement. With the ventilator tube filling her throat, Yvette couldn't utter a word--only pencil her questions and responses on a notepad.
In fact, John was overjoyed to report that one of the first things Select Specialty did was to equip Yvette with a "voice box," a device that could be placed against her trachea enabling her to speak a few words. "She hasn't been able to talk in so long," he related. "That meant a lot to her."
Once Select Specialty Hospital has achieved its goal of readying Yvette for her surgery, she'll be returned to Cleveland, where, eventually the transplant must take place. In addition to the cost of the procedure itself, the "Clinic" has informed John that Yvette will need to have a person with her "24/7" in the recovery area for at least eight weeks. "Rooms there are $65.00 a day," he reported gloomily, "and of course, there's gas and food."
John, better known as "Fonz" to his customers at Sixt Lumber in Little Valley, has worked at that location for over 35 years (dating back to when it was Salzler's Little Valley Materials. Yvonne teaches at Jellyroll Junction Preschool in South Dayton. When she was healthy, Yvette also worked as a teacher, at Pine Valley Central, and later in the Dunkirk school system.
The family has been figuring out how they'll fill that round-the-clock caretaker's role. Everyone works, and everyone needs to work, especially in the face of mounting medical bills. Right now, they're thinking two weeks for John, two for his wife and four for Yvonne.
To offset the mounting expenses, a series of benefits is being planned. Leading off, Yvette's Aunt Jane (Mrs. Phil Frentz) will head up a "Breath of Life" Benefit Spaghetti Dinner to be held at Roberts Memorial Free Methodist Church, Saturday from 4:30 until 7 p.m. Donations will be gratefully accepted.
The Little Valley United Methodist Church of Little Valley is also undertaking a donation-style benefit. This one will feature soup, salad and roast beef on weck, and is scheduled for Saturday, Apr. 10 from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Just before press time, Andy Barr, one of the organizers of a group new to Cattaraugus, called to say that ABATE (American Bikers Aim to Educate) will also stage a benefit for Yvette. Jeannette Pierce, who has taken on the responsibility of planning the event, said their group just heard about the need, and intends to move forward as quickly as possible. "We want to do something big," she said, adding that as soon as a time and place are set, they'll start publicizing it.
At this point, John and Yvonne, who live in New Albion, are exhausted, physically and financially. No wonder this remarkable outpouring of love so overwhelms them. "This should show the hospital that Yvette has people who care about her," said John.
It can only be hoped that the public will support these efforts to help Yvette win the fight of her life. Those who love her have taken it as far as they're able.
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