A young Irish woman who traveled to the U.S. by ship for life-changing medical treatment is appealing for help.
A cancer survivor, May Philbin from Blacklion, Co. Cavan has been receiving life-transforming care in Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina since last November.
Side effects from cancer treatment eight years ago mean the 27-year-old woman faces a constant struggle with breathing and eating, two everyday necessities that most people take for granted.
“When you swallow you have a trap door behind the tongue that slams shut over the airway, and when that occurs it means you don't swallow food down the wrong pipe,” Philbin’s specialist Dr. Christopher Sullivan told the Irish Voice.
“In Mary's case she swallows things down the wrong pipe because that trap door is scarred.”
Scaring from radiation treatment left Philbin with a host of upper-respiratory issues, including aspirating into her lungs.
“She is currently undergoing intensive swallowing therapy in order to facilitate the success,” Sullivan said.
But mounting medical bills mean the young woman needs financial assistance to continue her treatment.
Life changed forever for Philbin in May of 2005 when she was diagnosed with cancer.
The 19-year-old was in her first year of study in Cork Institute of Technology when she began feeling tired and lacking energy.
“The world was at my feet before I was diagnosed,” Philbin reflects.
Stabbing pains in her teeth and face caused her to become concerned.
The results of a CT scan showed that she had developed nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a type of cancer that affects the throat and nose. Early detection is difficult as the symptoms mimic those of other common conditions.
The prognosis was good. Doctors informed Philbin her cancer was treatable and prescribed an aggressive combination of radiation and chemotherapy.
Although the therapy successfully treated her cancer, Philbin suffered devastating side effects. The radiation destroyed her saliva glands, and scar tissue in her throat prevents her from eating any solid food.
“I spent my days and nights coughing up blood. I can remember there were months in which I couldn't brush my teeth,” Philbin explains in a blog on her website the Mary’s Journey of Hope.
Her hearing and speech has also been affected as a result of the aggressive treatment.
“I lost my voice for three months from the radiation. I communicated via pen and paper. The doctors involved in my care at the time thought my voice would never come back, but it finally did,” Philbin said.
Eileen Philbin, Mary’s mother, explained during a phone interview from their home in North Carolina that her daughter’s condition is rare.
“We have not met anybody that has her devastating side effects that she has,” Eileen Philbin told the Irish Voice.
“She will never to be able to eat meat or food as we know it, but the hope is after her treatment she may be able to eat porridge, mashed potato, maybe even ground beef.”
On a daily basis Philbin struggles with breathing and is restricted to a limited liquid diet which leaves her drained and short of breath.
With her condition worsening and doctors in Ireland reluctant to treat her, she turned to the Internet for a possible solution.
“I was looking up long term side effects of aspiration in the lungs and I stumbled across him,” Philbin told the Irish Voice.
The him was Sullivan, an ear, nose and throat specialist based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“This guy is amazing, I thought, I have to contact him,” she said.
The young woman read a testimony from one his patients who had been unable to swallow before treatment. Philbin decided to reach out to the doctor via email, and it wasn’t long before she got the response she had been waiting years to hear.
“I am honored she came all the way across the pond,” Sullivan told the Irish Voice.
The odds were stacked against Philbin as her condition meant she couldn’t fly the thousands of miles to North Carolina. A lack of health insurance didn’t dissuade her. She says she was filled with hope that Sullivan could help her ailing condition.
Eileen Philbin took out a loan to finance their trip across the Atlantic. Just like millions of Irish immigrants in the past, the mother and daughter prepared to travel by ship to New York.
“We borrowed money, the family helped out and there were some fundraising efforts too,” Eileen Philbin explained.
The pair traveled by car from their home in Cavan to Rosslare in Co. Wexford. Then they took the ferry to Fishguard in Wales. From there they drove to Southampton before they boarded a ship bound for New York. The trans-Atlantic passage took seven days.
“It was a monstrous journey,” Mary Philbin recalls. “I would get infections frequently.”
“The train journey from New York to North Carolina was 12 hours, 45 minutes. I made it in 13 days, having to stop along the way because I was so weak.”
Since arriving in North Carolina last November, Philbin has undergone two rounds of surgery.
“I was in surgery in December. It has taken me a long time to recover,” she said.
Now she undergoes intense physical therapy a few times a week.
“I am trying to get strong for the next surgery,” she said.
Sullivan says Philbin’s positivity has played a big role in her treatment.
“She is a very unique individual. Her resilience throughout the past eight years is testament to her determination and strength,” he said.
While the Philbins originally thought their stay in North Carolina would be a short, Sullivan says it’s difficult to put a time frame on her treatment.
“It’s not clear to me how long she will need to stay in terms of her rehabilitation,” he said. “She has a very unique situation.”
The Philbins are living in a house called Hope House provided by Pine Grove United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, but mounting medical bills are a cause for concern.
“About two months after we got here we had gone through €50,000,” said Eileen Philbin.
“A night in the hospital is $5,000-$6,000. Just to read a CT scan was $500 and a bottle of painkillers cost $127 in the pharmacy.”
Philbin makes this emotional appeal on her website.
“I passionately plea to anyone out there in the world who might find themselves in a position to help me, no matter how small. It will be greatly appreciated,” she wrote.
“I see this as my last shot at improving my life.”
To donate visit www.maryphilbin.com. Donations can also be made by check to Pine Grove United Methodist Church, 1130 Jonestown Road, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 27103. Checks should be noted with "Mary Philbin Fund."
Watch this news report on Mary Philbin's journey: