Mom Struggles to Get Son’s Cancer Treated Amid Pandemic, Insurance Problems

December 30, 2020 Updated: December 31, 2020

After living week-to-week in the cheapest hotel she could find, Wendy Onofre, 27, was relieved to find a two-bedroom apartment in Anaheim, California, where she now resides with her fiancé, Davi Johnson, 26, their newborn son, and her five other children.

The family hit a rough patch, having lost their jobs amid the pandemic cutbacks and struggling to care for their children all out of school. They were happy to find some stable footing again. But her happiness was fleeting.

In July, her eldest son, Daniel Jesus Onofre, 10, developed a cough and a sore throat. Fearing he might have COVID-19, she took him to a hospital emergency room. The diagnosis wasn’t what she expected.

Daniel was diagnosed with stage four germ cell cancer with advanced tumors in his back, chest, and brain.

He was taken to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) in Orange for chemotherapy. Since then, he’s been in the hospital almost as much as he has been out, Onofre told The Epoch Times.

Last month, Daniel was admitted to the hospital for a procedure that could save his life. He would receive high-dosage chemotherapy in a 21-day process. Broviac tubes were surgically inserted into his chest, which would be used to implant his own stem cells for repairing lung tissue after the chemotherapy.

But then there was more bad news: The second day after Daniel was admitted, the doctors told Onofre that her insurance company had delayed coverage for the operation, which costs between $20,000 and $30,000, and he was sent home with the tubes in his chest.

The doctors were trying to prevent the spread of cancer from his left lung to his heart, she said. She urgently wanted this operation completed to prevent the spread and felt panicked at the delay.

With nowhere left to turn, on Dec. 20, Onofre and Johnson launched a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for the operation. As of Dec. 29, about $4,000 of the $20,000 goal had been raised.

“He was supposed to go through a transplant and receive high dose chemo to finish off the last of the tumor cells, but his insurance is trying not to approve the transplant because they want to wait to see if it comes back or goes away even though they already put the Broviac line in his chest. His doctors are doing all they can to try and get it approved but the insurance is making things very difficult,” Onofre wrote on the Go Fund Me page.

“I want my son to make a full recovery and I want to do all I can to make that happen. God bless,” she wrote.

Had she known that the insurance company was going to delay the transplant procedure, Onofre told The Epoch Times she would not have let Daniel get the Broviac lines put in his chest so soon.

“Now we have to take care of it at home. … I need to make sure when the kids play, that he doesn’t get hit or he doesn’t hurt himself.”

Epoch Times Photo
Daniel Onofre has tubes in his chest in preparation for a cancer treatment that includes stem cells being inserted in his lungs. (Courtesy of Wendy Onofre)

The tubes protrude about seven inches from Daniel’s chest but are taped down with a dressing, she said.

“We’ve still got to be real careful,” she said. “Every day, we have to clean it before we flush it. Then every seven days, we are going to have to change the dressing and the caps of the tubes that are sticking out.”

CHOC and CalOptima

Citing health privacy laws, spokesperson Bridget Kelly for Onofre’s insurance company, CalOptima, told The Epoch Times the company couldn’t comment on the issue.

“In accordance with the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, CalOptima cannot disclose Protected Health Information about any member nor can CalOptima confirm membership of an individual in our Medi-Cal plan,” she said in an emailed statement.

Onofre shared the letter she received from CalOptima with The Epoch Times. It confirms that CalOptima is the insurance provider and that Dr. Lilabeth Torno is Daniel Onofre’s doctor.

The “notice of action” Onofre received Dec. 28 also confirms that CalOptima delayed the operation. The letter was dated Dec. 17, and it states as the reason for the delay, “CalOptima may consult with a Board-Certified specialist if the Prior Authorization is out of the scope of practice of the physician reviewer.”

Torno has not responded to inquiries. However, a CHOC spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email that she would look into the matter, but that the hospital couldn’t offer any information due to privacy laws.

Since The Epoch Times started making inquiries on Dec. 24, Onofre said CalOptima has changed its story. She said a caseworker told her on Dec. 29 that the insurance company had already approved the procedure last week. But Onofre said that’s not what she was told last week.

“It feels like they are trying to buy time and figure out what to do,” Onofre said in a text to The Epoch Times on Dec. 29.

Tough and Tragic Times

Daniel had just begun attending his new school, Lincoln Elementary, in mid-February when the pandemic struck and schools were closed under California’s statewide stay-at-home order. He didn’t have a chance to meet any new friends. Still, he misses school.

He also misses playing sports.

“I used to play basketball. Not anymore,” he told The Epoch Times.

When he’s not in the hospital, he likes to play video games online with his cousins. Though he would rather be at home, he knows he has to go to the hospital if he hopes to get well.

“Home is much more better than in the hospital,” he said. “If I get better, I could spend more time with my family.”

The worst part about being sick is “getting cold and feeling all the pain,” said Daniel, who often suffers from high fevers. “It’s really cold over there,” he said of the hospital.

Daniel has kept a positive attitude most of the time, but has struggled with social isolation, not just from being in the hospital away from his brothers and sister, but also because he can’t mingle with other children at the hospital. It’s simply too risky.

With a compromised immune system from chemotherapy, Daniel must remain isolated. He said of being around the other children there, “I really do want to.”

‘Shy and Sad’

Not long after his first chemotherapy treatments, Daniel asked his teacher if he could turn off his camera during online classes.

“He was really shy and sad about kids having to see him without hair,” Onofre said. “He told me he didn’t want to be in class with all the other kids because he looked different.”

Onofre is grateful to his teacher for accommodating her son’s wishes to be off-camera until he felt more comfortable. As his hair has grown back, Daniel has turned on his camera to join the class a couple of times, she said.

“He actually has been missing a lot of school time … and he hasn’t been able to be like the other kids online every day and getting to be with the teacher,” Onofre said.

Daniel has a difficult time focusing on lessons, she said, and when he’s in the hospital, he spends only about one hour a day online.

Homelessness

Onofre said she ended up homeless after her mother’s landlord evicted her because there were too many people living in her two-bedroom apartment in Tustin. Onofre had been living there with her mother, five children, her sister, and her sister’s two children.

“We all ended up staying in hotels. I would move back and forth to hotels trying to find a better deal for the week,” she said.

The family was homeless for about eight months living in hotels in Santa Ana. Onofre and her fiancé are both students at Cerritos College and had worked at retail warehouse jobs until she was laid off in June and he was laid off in July due to the pandemic impacts, she said.

Epoch Times Photo
Daniel Onofre (R) sits with his four brothers: (left to right) Michael, Angel, Jason, and Adonis who is one month old. (Courtesy of Wendy Onofre)

Though Onofre could probably get a job in a warehouse now, she said, her son’s illness and the time spent caring for him in the hospital as well as her other five other children, including a month-old newborn, make it almost impossible to work right now.

“It’s just been really hard to maintain going back and forth to the hospital with Daniel and then having the other children at home. It’s been really hard to even try to get a job right now and go through all that,” she said.

Onofre is struggling to keep up with online classes, but she wants to earn an associate degree in nursing and then seek a job in health care, she said.

“I had to also stop working because my kids were all out of school. I didn’t have a babysitter, so I stayed home after all that,” Onofre said.

The family is doing the best they can to make ends meet, said Onofre. Her mother, Maria Cervantes, helps out with babysitting as much as she can.

Onofre said it was heartbreaking having to explain to the younger children why their older brother is in the hospital so much.

“They were wondering about his hair and why he’s always at the hospital.”